“The Things They Left Behind” is a post 9/11 short story by American writer Stephen King, first published in 2006 in a joint collection by Southern Gothic writer John Farris and King. Find it also in Stephen King’s own collection called Just After Sunset, published two years later.
King’s story has been adapted as a short film with the most jarring, unpleasant film music I’ve heard in a long time (personal taste, of course). The main character is also a lot younger than I envisioned. I had no reason to imagine a middle-aged man, but somehow I did. I believe it’s the voice. The narrator has the voice of someone Stephen King’s own age. Also, ‘once in the late eighties, after a bitter two-year romance with alcohol’ strongly suggests he was already a jaded adult by the 1980s.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE THINGS THEY LEFT BEHIND?”
First, is this a magical/supernatural story, or is it realism? You can interpret it either way, depending on your personal capacity for clairvoyance, ghosts and whatnot.
It’s the summer of 2002. The first person narrator is Scott Staley, whose thoughts are all over the place. He’s clearly scattered, sort-of-telling his story of single man’s life in post 9/11 New York city, interspersed with liberal dashes of pop culture references, especially movies. The movie references (we later deduce) are a coping mechanism. If he talks about movies, he avoids the real-world horror of the terrorist attack.
King avoids hammering home the point that the terrorist attack is fresh in everyone’s minds, but does remind us of constantly that this is a New York setting. (“The Things They Left Behind” wouldn’t work anywhere else.) One standout feature of New York, mentioned on the page: Everyone who lives in this city is an amateur film critic due to all the films shot and set here.
King takes the movie thing further than that, though, because Scott’s own private apartment happens to contain what we might regard as horror film props. But… let’s come back to that.
As the story progresses, Stephen King drip feeds Scott’s backstory: On 9/11 2001, Scott was supposed to be at work. He worked in insurance, with offices in the disaster zone. All of his colleagues were killed that day. His workplace no longer exists.
In the almost-year which has passed since then, Scott has started a new line of work in a lonelier profession: research, mostly done from his own home. His social world has shrunk.
Named for us (later) on the page, Scott is experiencing survivor’s guilt.
For now, he needs someone to talk to. He tries calling a therapist but the wait list is super long. He can’t talk to his sister, who has turned religious. He’s out of ideas.
THE MASTURBATION SCENE
There’s a flashback to Scott’s teenage years when he started a masturbating routine making use of his sister’s underpants. His sister and mother come home earlier than expected one day and he was almost caught. The whiff of incest here is probably supposed to elevate the scene beyond the been-there-done-that, and I do sometimes wonder why Stephen King so frequently includes scenes like this.
Ostensibly, on the page, the link is shame.
Is it also meant to shock? I don’t think so. But I do believe it speaks to male readers in particular. We rarely see masturbus interruptus in fiction when it features a teenage girl. Have you ever seen a gender swapped equivalent of this scene anywhere, in which the female character comes out more relatable and not completely messed up? Yet I believe this scene is designed to make Scott relatable. The cured meat joke at the end is indicative of intended tone. We know he’s a regular guy who just happens to be doing something a little odd. He’s opening up to us, telling us his most embarrassing teenage secrets. (Or are we supposed to wonder if he’s a creeper until proven otherwise? I’m open to that reading, if that’s how it worked for others.) What doesn’t work for almost all women I bet: The idea that a male relative has been using your underwear for masturbation purposes. There’s nothing really funny about that.
This flashback scene is an excellent example of my general impression of the author: that Stephen King is very good at speaking to cishet men, but sometimes only to cishet men. Masturbation is of course an ungendered activity (despite what fiction shows us), but let’s take a look at what happens next.
A FEMINIST TAKE ON SCOTT AND PAULA
Scott decides to ask a woman he barely knows to do some free therapy for him. Men are clearly very used to women being suspicious of their requests for time and attention (for good reason, I hasten to add). Stephen King adeptly portrays the awkwardness of being a man in need of TLC, but who is regarded with suspicion by a woman, simply by dint of being a man. (This isn’t enough to stop Scott approaching Paula, though.)
In their exchange, Stephen King scripts a very poor ‘joke’: Reading Paula’s suspicious body language and question, Scott jokes that he hasn’t assaulted any women in X amount of time and… unrealistically, Stephen King writes a woman-of-the-world who is suddenly disarmed by that? Of course she’ll go out with him. Sure. Why not? Since he’s the sort of man who… can happily joke about male violence against women. (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but don’t do that. Or maybe do, if you’re so inclined, so strangers can properly read the red flags when you try it.)
Here’s where I think a woman author would do it differently: She would likely come up with a more sophisticated exchange before Paula is left reassured by the guy. Honestly, that’s a lot harder to write that than how King ham-fisted it.
But would a woman have written this plot in the first place? Well, perhaps. This is hardly a story of escapism. (In escapist fiction, women read stories in which they are not the default repository for random men’s trauma because of the societal expectation that women are nurturing, kind and giving in real life, all the time, basically everywhere.)
It is completely in line with realism that in “The Things They Left Behind” a married neighbour-woman accepts Scott’s request to be his unqualified trauma counsellor because — let’s face it — that’s how women are acculturated, just as men are acculturated into expecting it. No accident that Scott asked a woman, not a man, for this service.
Here’s what rubs. Stephen King paints it as a give-and-take because Scott hit reset on Paula’s air-con, which is another irritating contrivance because it plays into a hackneyed stereotype that women can’t manage basic tech. Of course, one instance in a story doesn’t make a stereotype. Instead, all these tiny things tend to accumulate over the course of an author’s lifetime.
Overall, I just think a woman would have been more wry about this guy. Let’s imagine how Margaret Atwood might have written the scene in which Scott asks Paula for the favour of free counselling. For starters, Atwood would probably write from the point of view of the woman, approached by a guy in her apartment building to provide free therapy in the wake of collective trauma. Paula’s dialogue does sound exactly like something a Margaret Atwood character would say, but contra to Atwood’s famously wry narration, there’s no knowingness to Stephen King’s scene. I sense no acknowledgement that this is a highly-gendered one-way street.
Back to the plot. Paula agrees to hear Scott’s 9/11 stuff over lunch. Scott makes them a booking at the least romantic eatery he can find, with fluorescent lighting, unfriendly staff, the whole unsexy shebang. There, he confides to his married-woman-date-with-a-husband-overseas that he keeps finding grim memorabilia around his apartment and he has no idea how it got there: Trinkets of his former (now dead) colleagues from the insurance company. He finds Paula sexy for listening.
SYMBOLISM OF THE UNWELCOME SOUVENIRS OF THE LAST SAFE DAY
By drip-feeding information about the items, who they belonged to, Stephen King is teaching readers how to read his story. He withholds how these items might apply to any sort of overriding theme, encouraging us to form the chain/complete the circle ourselves.
Ultimately, every associative chain forms a necklace.“The Things They Left Behind”
This trope draws on the ancient tradition of fairy tale, in which objects can be imbued with either negative or positive magical forces. It’s not uncommon for contemporary short story writers to make use of this trope. See also: “Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser. These items are especially scary when they enter the home.
Let’s take a look at Stephen King’s ‘unwelcome souvenirs of the last safe day’ which Scott has found in his apartment, and which have obviously been chosen carefully by the author, and not just because the desk decorations say something about the (dead) characters but also because they may say something about 9/11 and about American (Western) society in the early 2000s.
HEART SHAPED JOKE GLASSES WITH RED FRAMES
Belonged to: Sonja D’Amico, Light and Bell’s best accountant, “who had gotten the Lolita sunglasses as a bitter divorce present from her first husband.”
Indicating: Irony. At least, I feel the ironic aspect is more important than the Lolita (child abuse) aspect. I figure the Lolita connection says more about the trans-American setting than about the predilections of Humbert Humbert.
What’s ironic about 9/11, though? It’s not enough to say, ‘the glasses indicate irony’ and leave it at that.
Perhaps the irony of the heart-shaped glasses is this: A symbol of love (community — America — coming together) after an act of hate. This may be a stretch because, for Scott, the community has not come together. However, his refusal to throw away the desk items of terror is, in its own way, an act of love for his erstwhile colleagues.
What about the fact they are glasses, though? Surely this has something to do with vision. Rose-tinted lenses… The rose-tinted lenses are off. This generation of Americans had perhaps been too blasé in thinking something like 9/11 would never happen.
LUCITE CUBE WITH A STEEL PENNY INSIDE
Belonged to: Roland Abelson in Liability
Indicating: Stephen King mentions the profile of Abraham Lincoln several times. You can’t get much more American than Abe Lincoln. The Lucite is transparent; the penny is protected, and Abe probably feels he’s got a forcefield of protection around him when he doesn’t.
Belonged to: Bruce Mason “alias Conch Man, alias Lord of the Flies”
Indicating: This symbolism is somewhat intertextual. In Lord of the Flies a conch shell is used to call meetings and also to establish order when the boys talk. When studying this novel in school, we learn the conch symbolises civilization, adult rules, and the democratic process.
But if you talk into a shell, you’re not talking to anyone. You could be calling for help, and no one comes to save you. I would suggest the conch shell in “The Things They Left Behind” stands for calls for help which go unheeded.
If you’ve never heard anyone blow a conch shell (I had not), a YouTube video demonstrating how to blow one showed me that it sounds eerily like sirens.
“Anyone can play a conch shell. All you gotta do is get over your fear of putting a shell next to your mouth, and having your friends ridicule you.”Conch shell musician
Belonged to: Cleve “Besboll been bery-bery good to me” Farrel, with ‘claims adjustor’ written on the side.
Indicating: When I think baseball, I think America. Sport is about rivalry. Some say sport keeps the masses from out-and-out warring with each other. Of course, sporting rivalry is on the same spectrum as ‘warring’, just at different ends of it.
There’s also an implied violence to the baseball bat, though that feels secondary.
CERAMIC MUSHROOM WITH A TINY ALICE IN WONDERLAND SITTING ON IT
Belonged to: Maureen Hannon, who wore her long, white hair long, disregarding the corporate look because she understood how indispensable she was to the company. (Indispensability is in itself ironic given as how the entire insurance company was so quickly disposed of.)
Indicating: This is another intertextual reference (along with Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Lord of the Flies, Marathon Man etc.). Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is synonymous with dreamscape/hallucination. Lewis Carroll’s famous story messes with logic, as is happening here. (“How did these items get into my apartment?”)
LAFF-RIOT FARTING CUSHION
Belonged to: Jimmy Eagleton “who had a divine nose for phony accident claims”
Indicating: Deflation. Explosion. Also hilarity, which makes it ironic in a story about terrorism and death. It also strikes me that farting cushions are shaped like mushroom clouds of atomic bombs, but I’m perhaps thinking that because of a different story in the same collection (“Graduation Afternoon“). The Twin Towers explosion wasn’t shaped like that.
Stephen King has a knack for taking harmless childhood things and plonking them in a horror story. He’d already dealt with clowns by the time he wrote this story. It’s not like fart cushions will be left alone.
PUNCH FROM A PAIR OF PUNCH AND JUDY DOLLS
Belonged to: Misha Bryzinski
Indicating: Creepiness. There must be a reason why Stephen King introduced this one last. The creepiness of the gifts build until we get the doll with the black eyes. (It’s hard to believe Punch and Judy was ever funny and not creepy, isn’t it?)
Also, Scott only finds the Punch doll. He never finds the Judy. Missing spouse. Scott is now tasked with the job of finding real people who have lost their spouse, described as ‘missing’ (not dead) as if they, too, were never alive (as a doll can only ever be missing and not dead).
Like the baseball bat which implies something will be hit, even the name Punch has an inherent violence to it.
What happens next? Paula encourages Scott to get rid of the items but understands why he can’t. So she offers to take one of them for him. She’ll look after it as he comes to terms with the reality that he can’t hold onto them forever. She’ll place it in her safe.
No good deed goes unpunished. Paula regrets taking the item from Scott. In Scott’s eyes, she transforms on his doorstep from sexy cougar listener lady to haggard and unattractive. Stephen King sure does like the witch archetype and its binary of sexy/hag, sometimes in the very same woman. This is how I fail to see any knowingness to Stephen King’s story craft: Paula was sexy when she was providing the service of listening to Scott and relieving him of the objects of his trauma, but as soon as she withdraws her services she is no longer fvckable. There’s no subversion here. This is plain old playing into misogynistic tropes.
In a supernatural reading, the objects are placed in Scott’s apartment by ghosts or something. His dead colleagues could be placing the items there to torture him — to remind him he should be dead like they are, if he hadn’t skipped out of work that day.
Although Scott has no idea how these objects came to be in his possession, readers can come up with a perfectly ordinary explanation if we are so inclined. Perhaps he gathered up everyone’s knick-knack for some practical joke he has now forgotten all about. Perhaps another co-worker pranked him by sending him home with these items. Or perhaps he’s gone out and purchased replica items in a partially fugue state because he couldn’t bear the loss of his entire workplace and two dozen colleagues.
However, none of these realist readings works very well, unless there’s something I can’t think of. It’s easier to decode these events as somewhat supernatural, especially after Scott shares his burden with someone else and she is as disturbed as he is, seeming to become a medium between the dead and the living, seeing the full horror of the day of disaster.
WRITING TRICK: IS IT REAL OR ISN’T IT?
Stephen King leaves us hanging. We never know where the objects came from. We’re never even fully sure this whole story isn’t wholly imagined, including Paula, the doorman and the FedEx guy.
Let’s take a look at how he messes with readers’ sense of reality.
First, Scott takes ghost-Sonja’s glasses out of the apartment, meaning to throw them away. He encounters a couple of other guys talking — the doorman and the FedEx man.
I walked up and held my right hand, the one with the sunglasses in it, out to Pedro.“The Things They Left Behind” by Stephen King
“What would you call these?” I asked, not bothering to excuse myself or anything, just butting in headfirst.
He gave me a considering stare that said, “I am surprised at your rudeness, Mr. Staley, truly I am,” then looked down at my hand. For a long moment he said nothing, and a horrible idea took possession of me: he saw nothing because there was nothing to see. Only my hand outstretched, as if this were Turnabout Tuesday and I expected him to tip me. My hand was empty. Sure it was, had to be, because Sonja D’Amico’s sunglasses no longer existed. Sonja’s joke shades were a long time gone.
“I call them sunglasses,” Mr. Staley,” Pedro said at last. “What else would I call them? Or is this some sort of trick question?”
Are the glasses real within the world of the story, or aren’t they? King tells us they are, suggests they aren’t, then they are. Rafe the FedEx man looks at them, studying them.
“He had red hair.”“The Things They Left Behind” by Stephen King
“Not married but paying child support to a woman in Rahway.”
I hadn’t known that–didn’t believe anyone at Light and Bell had known that–but I nodded again, and not just to keep her rolling. I was sure she was right.
Paula could be imagining those details, and Scott can neither confirm nor deny. This could be a case of folie à deux (when two people are in on a fantasy, encouraging each other in its persistence).
Importantly, the final paragraph ties the ‘unknowing’ together. We — like the narrator — don’t know if more things will turn up in the guy’s apartment or not. That no longer matters, because the underlying reason for these items has been revealed: ‘When it comes to returning things which people believe have been lost forever, things that have weight, there are compensations.’
This probably has something to do with object permanence.
Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be sensed. This is a fundamental concept studied in the field of developmental psychology, the subfield of psychology that addresses the development of young children’s social and mental capacities.Wikipedia