The occasion for writing this presented itself last week during a late-night trip to the grocery store. What I bought was a frozen pizza but not before taking the long way to the checkout, through Books/Magazines, where, between Danielle Steele and Stephen King, was Stephen King: a reprint of his 1990 novella The Sun Dog. I’ve long thought this story deserved some spiritual scrutiny but the first thing to say is, you’ll get more bang for your buck purchasing the collection in which it was originally published, as one of four stories, Four Past Midnight. But then maybe not: because The Sun Dog is the best of them.

It’s the story of Kevin Delevan who receives a Polaroid Sun 660 on this fifteenth birthday. No matter where he directs the camera, what emerges is always a photo of a scraggly black dog, each slightly different from the last. Picture to picture, the dog inches ever so slightly towards the camera until — wearing a snarl with calamitous teeth — it seems to be emerging from the machine, out into life.

Now, Four Past Midnight, The Sun Dog included, is not King’s greatest book. The trustworthy Grady Hendrix, author of Paperbacks from Hell, described the collection as “hesitant”; King wrote Four Past Midnight after “a year-long bout of writer’s block” and likely under the pressure of his previous successes. I can only suspect the cause for this particular reprint was Hulu’s (good! atmospheric!) Castle Rock, which is the town where The Sun Dog takes place. However, I can’t help perceiving an eeriness in this story’s not-asked-for reappearance, not unlike the very demon-dog that haunts it.

2018 ed., Simon & Schuster

Hendrix isn’t wrong. At the same time, The Sun Dog’s weakness is also its strength: what might at first read like creaky plotting might, in a different sense, become the doorway to subtext. Consider that despite never encountering any previous supernatural manifestations, Kevin inexplicably understands what the Sun dog is capable of and why it is dangerous; without exception, the story progresses according to Kevin’s “intuitions,” which the reader may justifiably struggle to understand. You might wonder if King wasn’t just figuring things out as he wrote. Still, it works because it reflects the story’s deeper tensions between irrationality and rationality, blind faith versus doubt. If we trust Kevin — that the dog is indeed a manifestation, that the manifestation will indeed kill him — we can’t always say why.

These concerns emerge most obviously in Kevin’s relationship with his father, who — though present from the first sentence — is not immediately described. You don’t even realize he’s there. It’s Kevin’s birthday, and King takes the opportunity to describe at length a random family connection by which Kevin might, one day, earn an inheritance; it’s not clear why we learn so much on the first page about Aunt Hilda and her string-ties, but what this does in effect, whether intentional or not, is delay the introduction of one of the story’s most significant characters. Mr. Delevan is officially introduced on page two, in parenthesis no less. His presence requires no explanation and is one which the reader, and perhaps Kevin, takes for granted.

When the Polaroid acts up, Kevin feels certain something supernatural is the cause. Naturally, Mr. Delevan believes otherwise: “‘It’s a practical joke,’ his father said. ‘It must be.’” Readers are led to believe, because of the type of book this is, that Kevin’s intuitions should be trusted. The camera is supernatural, some sort of conduit through which a demonic entity is entering the lives of this unsuspecting family. Kevin, we come to believe, is in danger — and even more so, now at the mercy of his “reasonable” father.

Mr. Delevan was looking at Kevin with his lips pressed together. It was the look he always got when he perceived his son drifting toward that area of the ballpark where Kevin seemed most at home: left field. Far left field. There was a hunchy, intuitive streak in Kevin that had always puzzled and confounded him.

Because Mr. Delevan refuses to believe his son, Kevin seeks the company of a man who will: a duplicitous shopkeeper named — not coincidentally, I’m sure — “Pop” Merrill. Pop promises to destroy the camera, but he doesn’t. He keeps it for personal gain and eventually falls under its hypnosis(!). Later, through dreams, Kevin intuits that something is wrong. The camera has not been destroyed; the dog is coming.

Meanwhile, Mr. Delevan readies himself for yet another normal day at work. In a suit and tie, he gets into his car. With no-where else to turn, Kevin stops him in the driveway — and asks for his help.

Many will say “kill the parents” is the first rule in writing young adult fiction. And it is. Lily and James Potter died defending their only son against You Know Who; the Baudelaire parents perished in a fire that destroyed their entire home; C. S. Lewis called up a world war to get his Pevensies through the wardrobe and into Narnia. In nearly every story involving adolescents, the parents are either dead, missing, or absent, because — one supposes — reasonable supervision will get in the way.

The Sun Dog, however, is not exactly young adult fiction. Nevertheless, Kevin is fifteen, and a responsible father stands between him and a deadly unseen force. Kevin must somehow destroy the demon-camera but it seems Mr. Delevan will only cast aspersions. Watch closely:

“Kevin, I’m going to be late for work if I don’t—”

“Will you call in? Can you? Call in and say you’ll be late, or that you might not get there at all? If it was something really, really, really important?”

Warily, Mr. Delevan asked, “What’s the something?”

“Could you?” […]

“I suppose I—yes, say I could.”

The magic of The Sun Dog shines in this moment, in the decision made by Kevin’s father to respond to his son’s intuitions despite having no evidence to go on. It is a leap of faith not often taken by fictional fathers, or real ones. A reasonable man enters the madness. Mr. Delevan at last comes into full relief. Father and son, skeptic and spiritualist, now turn towards the supernatural entity which has marked Kevin’s life. Together, they sneak into the Emporium Galorium, where the camera is hidden.

At that moment, Mr. Delevan made a quietly heroic decision: he gave up entirely. He gave up entirely and put himself and what he believed could and could not be true entirely in his son’s hands…

And in spite of this decision, Mr. Delevan’s mouth would not quite let go of the last clinging shreds of rationality. “Why—” he began and that was as far as Kevin let him get.

“I don’t KNOW why!” [Kevin] shouted.

Notice: what I have called Mr. Delevan’s “leap of faith” is not so flawlessly executed. He gives up entirely, yes, but in the very next moment, he cannot quite let go. He surrenders, but also holds on. Maddeningly, this back-and-forth occurs throughout the entire final sequence — sneaking into the Emporium, following his son around town, witnessing the emergence of a giant demon-dog from a chipped Polaroid Sun — Mr. Delevan vacillates between faith and doubt, trust and skepticism, down to the final moment. As the Sun dog emerges from the camera, a vast, penetrating light fills the room, and “Mr. Delevan, helpless to stop himself and almost unaware of what he was doing, opened his mouth to tell his son that a light that big and bright could not possibly be coming from the built-in flash of a Polaroid camera.”

So filled with disbelief, yet here. So skeptical, yet standing between good and evil, his two feet planted between the son he loves and the demon who threatens to destroy them.

In King’s introduction to The Sun Dog, he explains that the goings-on in Castle Rock may well represent “a psychological microcosm.” If that’s the case, then the drama of my own mind, and likely yours too, is playing out here, in the characters’ interpersonal tensions, in their faith and their fears. I see Kevin, the perceptive believer who understands that all that can be seen is not all that there is. I see Pop Merrill, too, scheming, and easily hypnotized. But it is Mr. Delevan with whom I am most familiar: my inner skeptic who holds tight to good sense with at least his pinky finger. Even as I give up entirely, some part of me doesn’t. These are the invisible contests of faith and doubt, cyclical, seasonal, arriving and fading, yet all cradled under the promise of ultimate safety which cannot be altered by me or my indecision. I can count at least three separate times Mr. Delevan decides, wholeheartedly, to believe — and at least four times he decides not to. What I cannot count, because it is countless, is the number of times I have resigned to begin anew, to surrender entirely, only to reprioritize anxiety and fear.

The story has a complicated ending, and I have to give it away — you’ve made it this far. What happens is, Kevin defeats the Sun dog, sends it packing: back to the netherworld whence it came. In a sadistic twist, however, it resurfaces on the very last page, in a memo warning Kevin that “the dog is loose again.” Somehow, the Sun dog returns. Somehow, it reappears at the end of the book, and it reappears now, in the twilight days of 2018, on the shelves at the grocery store, staring me in the face, the blood in my fingers running ice-cold from this frozen pizza.

It all holds together as some loose allegory but for what I cannot say with certainty. Nevertheless, the dog means something — whether sin, doubt, mortality, or all of the above, or something else entirely — who can say? Whatever it may be, this dark animal persists: as does the faithful Kevin who understands everything inexplicably. And between these stands Mr. Delevan — you, me, skeptical and unbelieving at the most inopportune moments — but safe, in spite of himself, in the faith of his son. I guess you don’t always have to kill the parents.