Stephen King walks the fine line between reality and the supernatural in The Green Mile. He’s no stranger to the liminal space that hovers on the borders of our world and the unknown. I’ve read better King, and I’ve read worse King, but The Green Mile emotionally walloped me in a way few of the stalwart horror author’s stories never have. The Green Mile is a sucker punch to the heart and a thoughtful exploration of important themes: death, prejudice, and doing what’s right in the face of adversity.
Paul Edgecombe narrates The Green Mile as an old-timer staying in the Georgia Pines retirement community. The brunt of the story takes place in 1932, when John Coffey ends up in E Block (aka death row aka The Green Mile) for the assault and murder of the Detterick twins. Paul tells of the events in pseudo-chronological order, owing to his old age and faltering memory. The overall story involves multiple executions, a performing mouse, mysterious power, a daring scheme, and difficult choices.
For those looking to dive in, note that The Green Mile contains racial slurs, depictions of assault, murder, and death.
In typical King fashion, The Green Mile reads like a breeze. King’s prose teeters between elegant and simple, and he has a way of packaging everyday thoughts into beautiful wordscapes. The book is as much a work of narrative prose as it is a commentary on the human condition filtered through King’s deft thematic hand. You won’t find paragraphs-long descriptions of character appearances here. King prefers to let the reader do the visualization (he even said so in On Writing), freeing him up to paint a narrative picture and let the characters live and breathe within the confines of his story. Everything feels visceral and real in The Green Mile thanks to King’s keen ear for dialogue and quick pacing. This story recounts a single year for the most part, but there’s a lifetime within its pages.
The supernatural lurks in every corner of The Green Mile until a mysterious and strange power reveals itself. King uses the power (which is most definitely the shining, and therefore a hint that his works take place in a loosely shared universe, if you ask me) to emphasize his themes and messages. Plus, it’s just really cool to see a small element of the supernatural supplanted into our world. In a genre crowded with epic, magic-filled worlds or Dresden-esque wizards hiding in our reality, King’s approach remains refreshing. He thrives on the border of reality and magic, co-mingling elements of each into a succinct and impactful work.
The Green Mile, to me, shines most in its thematic coherence. It’s somewhat of a smorgasbord, offering various satisfying motifs. The first is racism. The Green Mile blasts the rampant racism of the 1932 United States and the crushing nonchalance with which oppressors commit horrific injustices on the grounds of race. I can’t delve too much into the intricacies of the plot that highlight this theme for fear of spoilers, but I can say The Green Mile feels intensely and powerfully resonant today, almost 100 years removed from the fictional events within. Most importantly, The Green Mile also showcases the complicity with which many of us engage in racist behavior or participate in societal norms made possible by racism. It’s not a perfect look at these issues, but The Green Mile does raise them to solid effect.
King also comments on death, the injustice of capital punishment, and practicing good morals. The climax of The Green Mile brings the novel’s themes together in a cascade of stunning reveals and fill-in-the-blank moments that tie the entire story together beautifully. As he does with the magical elements and the real elements of his story, King balances a single hopeful conclusion with the sadness of other less-than-happy endings.
Each time I read a Stephen King book, I appreciate him more. And The Green Mile was my latest leap forward in my appreciation for the author’s work. This book offers a heartwrenching exploration of themes through its relatable and unique characters. This tome is most certainly worth your time.