Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Umney's Last Case
(S01E03) Writers are the most shameless, self-centered bastards in the world. We lie, we seduce, we'll steal your soul. Anything to look good on the page. -Sam Landry
I thought I had read every story from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and I might have, but nothing about "Umney's Last Case" was familiar when I read it just recently. Nevertheless, it's not a bad story, and it's also very "meta" as the college kids like to say.
In the story, as in the TV adaptation, we begin in the 1930s where a grizzled private eye named Clyde Umney is leading a storybook life that he'll soon learn is more "storybook" than he realizes. He wields snappy dialogue with the precision of a trapeze artist, and always knows just what to say to get what he wants, at one point managing to turn two women to jelly in his office one after the other.
Stephen King touched on something in this short story that he would later revisit with the later volumes of his Dark Tower series, the idea that the writer is a kind of "god" who dictates what happens to the people who populate his tales. However, it isn't an absolute power, and as Umney points out, "character is destiny" and even though they only exist in the author's imagination, they still begin to develop a life all their own, sometimes steering the story in directions even the storyteller couldn't have foreseen.
The day after what seems to be a typical day in Umney's life, one rife with gorgeous dames and Dick Tracy-style shoot 'em ups, Umney begins to notice things aren't as they once were. His secretary, who he usually chases around her desk while she giggles joyfully, has left him, and he no longer hears his neighbors dancing and cavorting from across the yard. The pieces begin to fall into place when he's visited by Sam Landry, a man dressed in garb from our time that's completely unfamiliar to Umney. Landry also carries a Sony laptop, and explains to Umney that he is, in fact, him. Landry is a writer, and Umney is merely a character in a story. To prove this, Landry begins to control both Umney and his universe simply by writing out things on his laptop.
King's story is about a man who tires of his own life after the death of his son and tries to escape into his writing. In the story, his son does after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, in the TV adaptation, their son drowns in the family pool. In this instance, Landry quite literally escapes into his story with the intent of swapping places with the famous character he first invented in 1977. Umney is what Landry has always fantasized about being, and he decides it would be better for everyone if he disappeared into his own story while Umney takes over for him in his "real" life.
Landry's wife seems all to eager to jump into bed with her new husband, who's really just another form of her old husband, depending on how you look at it. That may seem odd, but it does make sense in a weird way because she's also trying to run away from the truth of their son's death by immersing herself in a fantasy. "Umney's Last Case" is a multi-layered story, but it doesn't get caught up in its own trickery. It also helps that William H. Macy plays both Landry and Umney perfectly. A less talented actor could have easily brought the whole story crumbling down, but Macy knows just when to be cartoony and when to be real, whether it's Umney adjusting to life in 2005 or Landry trying to feign film noir dialogue and sounding like a bumbling idiot. This isn't my favorite Stephen King story, but it's perfectly suited to this kind of adaptation.