The Mist Revisited

Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist has since inspired an incredible theatrical film version (2007), and a decade later, an entertaining, if somewhat divergent, TV series. However faithful these adaptations might prove to be, they nonetheless exist as different forms of media and are inevitably forced to discard elements of the source text. The strong imagery of these more recent cinematic/televisual translations also has the capacity to eclipse the actual words of King’s narrative and leave a deeper imprint on the modern audience’s imagination. After viewing the first season of the TV series, I decided to return (after a long readerly absence) to the King novella for a refresher course in dread.  Some observations from that now-completed reread:

*From its opening line (“This is what happened” [24]) to its concluding scene (revealing that the preceding story is a dire diary penned by narrator David Drayton while holed up in a Howard Johnson’s in southern Maine), King’s novella takes pains to frame itself as recorded narrative. The Mist also works to establish itself as a particularly Gothic narrative. A Poe-evoking David proclaims in the opening chapter that “The horrors of the Inquisition are nothing compared to the fates your mind can imagine for your loved ones” (27). Amidst the storm-induced power outage, David and his family venture upstairs, “each of us carrying a candle, like monks going to vespers” (28). A few paragraphs later, the crash of a tree against the roof of their home is likened to “a fist dropped on a coffin lid.” In chapter two, David cites “Mrs. Carmody’s gothic pronouncements” (34). Mrs. Carmody sports a canary-colored pantsuit that makes her look “like an advertisement for yellow fever” (54)–the very affliction central to Charles Brockden Brown’s early-American Gothic novel Arthur Mervyn. King’s junk shop proprietor is also viewed through a Hawthornian lens: “She looked like some crazed remnant of New England Puritanism in the gloom” (90). Throughout the novella, though, Mrs. Carmody is most overtly figured as a witch: “Put her in a pointy black hat and she would be perfect” (124).

*King puts the mist to frequent metaphorical use. Early on, David asserts: “Dreams, after all, are insubstantial things, like mist itself” (37). Later, “the mist of disquiet” suddenly settles over him, “and something terrible peered through from the other side–the bright and metallic face of terror” (54).  Coming into her own as an apocalyptic prophetess during the crisis situation, prime human villain Mrs. Carmody assumes a mist-like quality with her increasing “power to cloud men’s minds, to make a particularly apt pun” (141). These various figurative turns, however, do not diminish the threat posed by the actual mist.  If anything, the sun-blotting, dispiriting fog forms the ultimate antagonist. David writes: “It wasn’t so much the monstrous creatures that lurked in the mist; my shot with the pinchbar had shown me they were no Lovecraftian horrors with immortal life but only organic creatures with their own vulnerabilities. It was the mist itself that sapped the strength and robbed the will” (140-41).

*King’s text (vs. the film/TV versions) is capable of providing a different sensory experience of the mist. The narrative repeatedly accents the “thin, acrid, and unnatural smell of the mist” (129). Indeed, the nasal is much more pivotal to the novella, where the protagonists deduce that “[a]ll the things in the mist operated primarily by a sense of smell” (130).

*The surname of minor character Mike Hatlen seems a nod to King’s beloved English professor Burton Hatlen. The honorific, though, does not preclude the horrific, as Mike Hatlen ends up nastily garroted by a spider-spewed strand of acidic web: “His jugular went in a jetting, jumping explosion, and he was dragged away, head lolling” (133). Hatlen, of course, is not alone in suffering a grim fate; bagboy Norm’s demise in the storage area proves even more grisly and graphic than in the movie. Not merely caught in a crushing grip, Norm is “eaten alive” by carnivorous suckers: “His body boiled with tentacles, and blood pattered serenely down on the concrete in dime-sized droplets. His head whipped back and forth and his eyes bulged with terror as they stared off into the mist” (73).

*The melding of horror and humor is a recurring motif in King’s novella. When one of the tentacles rips off Norm’s apron, David is struck by one of his mother’s old sayings: “‘You need that like a hen needs a flag,’ she’d say. I thought of that, and I thought of that tentacle waving Norm’s red apron around, and I got laughing. I got laughing, except my laughter and Norm’s screams sounded about the same” (71). Likewise, David writes of the defense mechanisms adopted by the people trapped inside the supermarket: “the idea of throwing salt on [the tentacles] or trying to fend them off with the handles of O’Cedar mops was funny, in a ghastly way” (94). There is also “something horribly comic” about the grotesque bugs that land on the store’s front window: they “looked a little like one of those strange creations of vinyl and plastic you can buy for $1.89 to spring on your friends” (105). The supermarket resounds with “[t]he laughter of the damned” (109) in the wake of the hysteria caused by the intrusion of a pterodactyl-like predator drawn by the window bugs. In his endnote to the novella in Skeleton Crew, King even relates how the inspiration for The Mist came while standing on a checkout line during a post-storm supply run: “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” (568).

*In hindsight, The Mist presages 1999’s Storm of the Century, another King tale of unnatural meteorological menace. Just as the denizens of Little Tall Island resort to a good old-fashioned town meeting in an attempt to deal with their predicament, the people trapped in the Bridgton supermarket chew over the disconcerting information, “trying to see it from every possible point of view, working it the way a dog works a bone, trying to get at the marrow. It was a slow coming to belief. You can see the same thing at any New England town meeting in March” (88).

*King clearly echoes Lovecraft’s sense of the sublime with the description of the final, mind-blowing monstrosity glimpsed lumbering past on “Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight” (151). Witnessing this imagination-defying mammoth, David is forced to consider that “there are certain things that your brain simply disallows. There are things of such darkness and horror–just, I suppose, as there are things of such great beauty–that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.”  Indifferent to the relatively-insignificant human, the “great Thing’s” awesome passage also creates awful pitfall: “It left tracks in the cement of the Interstate, tracks so deep I could not see the bottoms. Each single track was nearly big enough to drop the Scout into.”

*While the film’s gut-wrenching twist ending represents a dramatic deviation from the source material by director Frank Darabont, the seeds for such violent climax are actually planted in King’s novella, when David briefly contemplates (147) murdering his son and the other passengers of the Scout and then committing suicide.  Ironically, the very endings David disavows (“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” [152]) are what practically take place in the film. King instead opts for ambiguity. The word “Hartford” (154) believed to be heard amidst radio static could be the imagining of a desperate man, or represent safe haven ahead–proving that the mist is not a worldwide blight.  Nonetheless, the circumstances of the narrative’s transmission (at tale’s end, David announces that he is going to “leave these pages on the counter and perhaps someday someone will find them and read them” [153]) raises the possibility that David did not survive to compose a coda further down the road.

*Scaling down an apocalyptic scenario to a singular, claustrophobic setting, King seems to follow the lead of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (notice, too, how vague scientific causes are given for the respective pandemics–a contaminated spaceship in the Romero film, and a shady government experiment, the Arrowhead Project, in King’s novella). Debt to Night of the Living Dead might also account for an otherwise incongruous detail in The Mist. David recalls a conversation with a writer friend about the rising popularity of supernatural fiction, and recounts the friend’s theory that “when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant” (36).

Thirty-seven years after its first publication,The Mist has not thinned out, has lost none of its dark glamour.  I can remember lying in bed as an adolescent reading the novella, and nearly hitting the ceiling when a fly happened to buzz past my ear.  I found King’s narrative no less engrossing, or unnerving, as an adult, and am confident in asserting that no matter how many film adaptations are made, or how many seasons of the new TV series unfold, none of them will ever manage to obscure the brilliance of the original.


[Note: All quotations are taken from the text of The Mist collected in the 1985 Signet paperback edition of Skeleton Crew.]

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