Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stephen King's "The Mist" (1985)

"In the market, my muse suddenly shat on my head - this happened as it always does, suddenly with no warning. I was halfway down the middle aisle, looking for hot-dog buns, when I imagined a big prehistoric bird flapping its way toward the meat counter at the back, knocking over cans of pineapple chunks and bottles of tomato sauce. By the time my son Joe and I were in the checkout line, I was amusing myself with a story about all these people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by prehistoric animals. I thought it was wildly funny -- what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Bert I. Gordon. I wrote half the story that night and the rest the following week," - Stephen King, describing the genesis of his novella, "The Mist," in the "Notes" section of the paperback, Skeleton Crew, p. 568 (Signet Books: New York, 1985). The long in the works film adaptation of King's short story opens in theatres tomorrow.

What is the most frightful in Stephen King's novella "The Mist" is not the advancing horde of unseen monsters hidden by a dense and mysterious fog. Rather, it is the psychological machinations of a group of citizens hiding from them in a local grocery store. More than two decade's ago, in 1985, "The Mist" appeared in Skeleton Crew, a collection of King's short stories. (Originally written in 1976, it had been published in an earlier form in 1980's Dark Forces). The premise: A commercial artist, David Drayton, and his young son , Billy, venture out to the grocery for supplies after a particularly devastating thunderstorm hits their lakeside community. Following the storm, a strange and unusual mist has begun to overtake the city. As the story progresses, Drayton and the others in the market learn that lurking within it are vile prehistoric creatures who feast upon anyone bold or foolish enough to venture outside.

Thus, along with other archetypal members of the community, the two Draytons find themselves trapped the large supermarket, unable to flee, unable to contact relatives, and unable to acquire any information of any kind. To cope with their new found horror, some try to escape, some fill themselves with booze, while others, including Drayton, attempt to formulate some type of long term plan. Slowly, but surely, the local eccentric, Mrs. Carmody, recruits a number of citizens to her camp of religious zealots, all of whom believe that the mist is a punishment for a higher power who must be appeased, ultimately, by a human sacrifice.

Back in the day, reviews were mixed. Of course, from its premise, it seems like pure and utter schlock. But one reviewer praised King for "escalat[ing] our worst anxieties into a hyperbolic fairy tale."1 Others dismissed his tale of "gooey monsters at the supermart"2 as "the stuff B-movie drive-in double- features are made of"3 (although depending upon one's perspective, those descriptions may be compliments after all). The New York Times noted that it "begins as a powerful evocation of a small Maine community dealing with the terrifying aftermath of a storm, but it quickly deteriorates into a hokey sci-fi thriller full of gigantic spiders and insects created presumably by human tampering with nuclear energy."4

Barry Boesch, writing for the Dallas Morning News, observed:

As interesting as the horrible monsters outside are the emerging monsters inside as the people try to deal with their panic and stress at being thrust into a seemingly hopeless, life-threatening situation.5

Boesch poses the most interesting question in his review. Of whom should the reader be more frightened, the dinosaur-like monsters waiting in the mist, or the human beings whose social order begins to deteriorate inside the supermarket? "The Mist" is at times a fascinating psychological study of its characters. But King has always been a better storyteller than writer of pop literature. His dialogue is oftentimes awkward, his descriptions of scenes and characters clunky, and his resolution to a narrative generally unsatisfying. In mid-novella, it devolves from a stark psychological drama to self-caricature; Mrs. Carmody transforms from an ominous old crone to a hysterical cult leader, who exclaims things like:

It's expiation gonna clear away this fog! Expiation gonna clear off these monsters and abominations! Expiation gonna drop the scales of mist from our eyes and let us see!

...

And what does the Bible say expiation is? What is the only cleanser for sin in the Eye and Mind of God? Blood.

This, of course, is evidence of Boesch's point that the monsters within are as scary as those without, but it doesn't seem to be the type of thing someone trapped in a supermarket would actually say, however crazed the situation. With a handful of loyal comrades, Drayton escapes the clutches of Carmody (who is shot and killed), the confines of the supermarket, and the creatures of the mist. But the story flashes forward several days to a hotel room where Drayton is chronicling the bizarre events of recent history. He and his followers have found temporary solace from the mist and its monsters. King then offers only this as an ending:

That is what happened. Or Nearly all -- there is one final thing I'll get to in a moment. But you mustn't expect some neat conclusion. There is no And they escaped from the mist into the good sunshine of a new day; or When we awoke the National Guard had finally arrived; or even the great old standby: It was all a dream.

(Emphasis in original). What is amusing, and irksome, about this ending is that King acknowledges he had no satisfactory resolution, but he then self-referentially makes note of that fact as if to forestall criticism on that very point. He suggests that his ambiguous non-ending is superior to a more definite closure because tidy endings are, apparently, square. The attempt did not go over well. Writing in 1985, and quoting the next paragraph in the story after the one quoted above, Davin Light of the Orlando Sentinel concluded:

But suddenly, King seems to run out of energy. And then he tells the reader he's run out of energy and dismisses it in much the same way he introduces the book. The ending '' . . . is, I suppose, what my father always frowningly called 'an Alfred Hitchcock ending,' by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were 'cheap shots.' '' I'm with his father.6

King commits the same sin twenty years later in Cell, his 2005 novel of a zombie apocalypse caused by cellular pulse. There, King ends the story with another non-ending: the protagonist holds a cellular phone to his zombified son's ear in hopes that it will restore his life to normalcy. There is no conclusion, there is no answer, there is no resolution to the story. The narrative ends with the reader not learning what ultimately comes of the son or his father. The reader is left to decide whether they find happiness again or only death in their new world.

One wonders if King had always intended such ambiguous endings in "The Mist" and Cell or if he, as Boesch suggests, merely ran out of energy and surrendered.

It has taken some time for the novella to make it to the silver screen. On May 14, 1996, Bryan Byun, posting in alt.books.stephen-king, related that he was "looking forward to the film version [of 'The Mist'] by Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption). If anyone can do true justice to the story, I think he can." The film adaptation of "The Mist" opens nationally tomorrow, eleven and a half years after Byun's post. Written and directed by Darabount (no stranger to King's work as the director of 1994's The Shawshank Redemption and 1999's The Green Mile), the film stars Thomas Jane (The Punisher) as Drayton and Marcia Gay Harden (Miller's Crossing, Pollock) as Carmody. For years and years and years, Darabount had been struggling to turn the short story into a motion picture. He has been linked to the project for so long that his efforts were being discussed at the dawn of the Internet. Byun, and others like him, were expecting him to helm an adaptation not too long after his success with The Shawshank Redemption. On October 10, 1994, Eric Parish, posting on the rec.arts.tv.mst3k and alt.tv.mst3k Usenet newsgroups, noted that "[t]here will be a movie of 'The Mist' coming from Castle Rock someday, directed by Frank Darabont, who did 'Shawshank' . . ." On June 28, 1996, Bev Vincent wrote on alt.books.stephen-king that "Darabont is supposed to be working on "The Mist", but I have not heard that it is anywhere beyond the pre-production." But delays and distractions kept the film in development hell for more than a decade.

But will it be worth the wait? Darabont will no doubt set the film in the present and bestow upon his characters all of the accessories of modern life (cell phones, Blackberries, irony), none of which will be able to penetrate the mist. The question is whether Darabont will run out of narrative gas as King did in the original novella, although these days, such a maneuver would lay the groundwork for a sequel, if the film rakes in a sufficient amount of box office dollars. Having worked so closely with King over the years, though, Darabont may be unlikely to significantly alter anything his patron author set to the page two decades before.

1 Bolotin, Susan. "Don't Turn Your Back on This Book," New York Times, June 9, 1985.
2 "Skeleton Crew - Book Reviews," Playboy, July 1985.
3. Graff, Gary. "King Gives His Imagination Room to Roam," Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), June 30, 1985.
4 Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "Books of the Times," New York Times, July 11, 1985.
5. Boesch, Barry. "Wide-Ranging 'Skeleton Crew' Looks at Internal, External Monsters," The Dallas Morning News, August 4, 1985.
6. Light, Davin. "Too many Bones, Not Enough Meat," Orlando Sentinel, July 14, 1985 (quoting the final pages of King's novella).

4 comments:

Bev Vincent said...

Since I'm quoted in your article from way back, you might be interested in my set visit report, which also features interviews with Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden and Toby Keith.

Spoiler notice posted at the top for those unfamiliar with the story.

Fred Fredburger said...

Correction to Bev's comment... it's Toby Jones, not Toby Keith. :) Thanks for the link to the report! I look forward to reading it.

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Fishers Roofing said...

The movie was pretty fast paced; the acting realistic enough and the creatures were not all CG, so that was refreshing. Highly recommended for lovers of suspense and terror and of course banging endings, this one was shocking and quite honestly very raw, almost painful in a strange way when no amount of relief the ending brought could erase the events that perspired before the last minutes.