The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

In my last post, I focused on Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, a novel that is undoubtedly indebted to the work of Stephen King (not coincidentally, Hex‘s main character is named Steve). The strongest echoes are of King’s Pet Sematary, but the town-meeting scenes bring to mind Storm of the CenturyThinking back on that King-scripted miniseries has led me to re-post the following piece (from my old Macabre Republic blog). It is the text of a paper I gave years back at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. 

 

The Dark Rites of Assent: The Town Meeting Goes Gothic in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century

Meandering through four hours of melodrama and not-so-special effects, the 1999 miniseries developed from Stephen King’s teleplay Storm of the Century hardly gets off to a compelling start. The arrival of the evil Linoge as Maine’s Little Tall Island is battered by a massive winter storm seems but a tedious rehash of the Randall Flagg plotline in The Stand: a supernatural antagonist manifests just as disaster threatens the breakdown of social order. Linoge’s endlessly reiterated demand in Storm of the Century–“Give me what I want, and I’ll go away”–creates perhaps less a sense of suspense than of irritation and impatience. The faithful viewer (the telematic analogue of King’s Constant Reader) is almost tempted to hold up the TV remote like Linoge’s cane and intone, “Give me what I want, or I’ll go away.”

On its third and final night, though, the miniseries takes a gripping turn. Linoge finally reveals the motivation behind his menacing: the sinister sorcerer wants Little Tall to hand over one of the town’s children to him, a boy or a girl whom Linoge subsequently will raise in his own image. At first, King might seem to have fallen back on familiar territory once again, considering that the parental anxiety over child welfare forms a leitmotif in the author’s works. But what proves particularly striking in this case is the moral dilemma Linoge creates (he threatens to kill all the children and all the parents if Little Tall does not give him what he wants) and the sociopolitical forum Linoge has Little Tall adopt when making its torturous decision: a good old-fashioned New England town meeting.

In his introduction to the published teleplay version of Storm of the Century, King attests that the Little Tall setting does not merely offer a convenient atmosphere of claustrophobia as the island is cut off from the mainland by the snowstorm and forced to fall back on its own resources: “The final impetus was provided by the realization that if I set my story on Little Tall Island, I had a chance to say something interesting and provocative about the very nature of community…because there is no community in America as tightly knit as the island communities off the coast of Maine. The people in them are bound together by situation, tradition, common interests, common religious practices.”  King’s climactic town meeting thus might be viewed in light of Sacvan Bercovitch’s critique (in his 1993 study, The Rites of Assent) of the rhetoric and rituals of American consensus. These “strategies of symbolic cohesion” inform the American Gothicism of Storm of the Century: “Is the result of pulling together always the common good?” King wonders in the introduction. “Does the idea of ‘community’ always warm the cockles of the heart, or does it on occasion chill the blood?” When King broaches the subject of communal formation and revitalization in Storm of the Century, he affords himself the opportunity to say something interesting and provocative about the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself.

Before turning to the miniseries’ climactic town meeting, I would like to consider the three source texts for Storm of the Century. Two of these are readily identified in King’s published introduction: “Most of my small-town tales–those of Jerusalem’s Lot, those of Castle Rock, those of Little Tall Island–owe a debt to Mark Twain (‘The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg‘) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (‘Young Goodman Brown‘).”  Given this acknowledgment of Hawthorne, it’s worth noting how King’s Storm of the Century hearkens back to Puritan times. For example, stage directions in the teleplay point the viewer’s gaze first to the exterior of the Little Tall Island Town Hall–“a white wooden building, stark in the New England style, and the center of the town’s public life”–before zooming inside to the actual hall where the town meetings take place: “This consists of many straight-backed benches, like Puritan pews, and a bare wooden lectern with a microphone. Looks more like church than government.”  When Linoge calls for his “little unscheduled town meeting,” the gathering of islanders is described in another King stage note as a “spectral” sight: “They look eerie by candlelight, like villagers from an earlier time…the time of Salem and Roanoke, let us say.” Such setting recalls the unsanctioned nighttime gathering in “Young Goodman Brown,” where the forest outside Salem village is eerily aglow with pine trees blazing “like candles at an evening meeting.”

Various other parallels between Hawthorne’s and King’s narratives reinforce this intertextual echo. The satanic figure in “Young Goodman Brown” sports a staff bearing “the likeness of a great black snake,” while King’s demonic Linoge leans on the supernatural prop of a wolf’s head cane. Also, just as the figure in Hawthorne’s story insists that “evil is the nature of mankind” and endeavors to expose the sinful “secret deeds” of the hypocritical Puritans, Linoge professes that “the good is an illusion” and airs the dirty laundry of Little Tall–a town “full of adulterers, pedophiles, thieves, gluttons, murderers, bullies, scoundrels, and covetous morons.” The perennial debate about whether Goodman Brown in fact observed a witch’s meeting or merely hallucinated the event perhaps find an analogue in Storm of the Century in the ambiguous nature of Linoge’s power (i.e. can he carry out his threats, or is he the embodiment of a nightmare that will ultimately pass like the titular winter storm?).  In both narratives, though, the reality of the antagonist proves less important than the social and psychological effects on the protagonist. Goodman Brown has his rhetorical armor–the notion that he comes from “a race of honest men and good Christians”–pierced by his experiences in the forest, and he loses “Faith” in his wife after witnessing her dealings with the devil. Similarly, King’s update of the Hawthornian everyman, Mike Anderson, no longer trusts in the communal and familial bond following the deal that is struck with Linoge at the town meeting. Anderson resigns as town constable and shuns his wife Molly, a key participant in the dark ritual at the town hall.

If Hawthorne’s story of a mysterious meeting in the forest lends some Gothic overtones to King’s town meeting, Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” forms an even more obvious parallel with Storm of the Century in terms of setting. While Twain’s story climaxes with an 8 o’clock meeting called by the devious title character, King’s narrative follows with a 9 o’clock meeting declared by Linoge. Having suffered an unspecified slight while in Hadleyburg, Twain’s enigmatic stranger plots a revenge drama that reaches its final act in a communal gathering at the town hall. Recognizing that the vaunted honesty upon which Hadleyburg has built its reputation is but an artificial construct that will crumble the first time it is tested, the stranger works to expose the greed and duplicity of the town’s nineteen principal citizens by leading them to lay false claim to a spurious sack of gold. My interest here, though, does not lie in recounting the elaborate confidence game orchestrated by this man, nor in noting the satiric glee with which Twain narrates the puncture of Hadleyburg’s pretensions. Instead, I want us to consider that Twain’s story furnishes a gloss on the abilities and motivations of Linoge in Storm of the Century. Twain’s eponymous antagonist admits to the populace of Hadleyburg that “I could not kill you all”; by analogy, Linoge might also be seen as incapable of carrying out his threat of marching all of the islanders into the seas if his demand isn’t met. After all, if Linoge possesses such powers of persuasion, why doesn’t he simply take what he wants? Why does he insist that the child must be freely given to him, and that the decision must be reached at a town meeting? The answer, I would suggest, is that Linoge seeks less to divest Little Tall of a single child than to invest himself in the civic fabric of the island.

Simply put, Linoge aims to be the man that corrupted Little Tall. In both the Twain and King narratives, such corruption is achieved under the guise of public ritual. The pomp and circumstance of the Hadleyburg meeting devolves into pandemonium as the nineteen prominent citizens (like the Puritan elect in “Young Goodman Brown”) have their dirty secrets exposed. At the start of the meeting, the town hall is said to have “never looked finer,” clothed in its “showy draping of flags,” but by tale’s end Twain writes that “the town was stripped of the last rag of its ancient glory.” The stranger’s deconstruction of Hadleyburg is finally evident in the alteration of “the motto that for many generations had graced the town’s official seal”: “Lead US Not Into Temptation” has now been emblematically revised as “Lead Us Into Temptation.” By comparison, Little Tall seems to have its rhetoric hollowed out by the events of its own town meeting.  At the start of the meeting, King’s scene description points us outside the town hall, to a cupola containing a bell and a plaque listing the island’s war dead (a memorial inscribed with the heading “WHEN WE RING FOR THE LIVING WE HONOR THE DEAD”). This slogan, though, rings false at the conclusion of the narrative, when the name of the child handed over to Linoge is listed on the plaque (in the pretense that he died during the storm of the century). Henceforth neither the living nor the dead are honored by the sounding of the bell; the islanders are guiltily reminded of the awful deal they struck with Linoge at the town meeting, and the child himself is not actually deceased but sentenced to warped, demonic existence under Linoge’s tutelage.

We might move even closer to an understanding of King’s use of the town meeting by considering a third source text for Storm of the Century. When Little Tall capitulates to Linoge’s demand for a young protege, the particular child is chosen through a lottery in which the parents draw colored “weirding” stones from Linoge’s bag. Here King invokes a story by a revered precursor, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Granted, King shifts the setting from the summer solstice to a heart-of-winter storm, and Jackson’s stones of punishment become the tools of the lottery itself in King’s narrative. In other instances, though, King does make direct echo of Jackson–Molly Anderson’s protest that Linoge’s lottery wasn’t fair matches the cries of Jackson’s maternal figure. Still, the most compelling parallel between the two narratives is the discourse about the nature of community. Both Jackson’s village lottery and King’s town meeting represent public ceremonies that work toward communal renewal via scapegoating and the infliction of individual human suffering. The ritual lottery in Jackson’s story–which is compared to other “civic activities” like square dances, the teenage club, and the Halloween program–is accompanied by a mantra promising a bountiful harvest: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” In turn, we might imagine Little Tall’s chant regarding Linoge’s lottery as “Assent to this one thing, live to see the spring.” Nevertheless, both Jackson and King endeavor to demonstrate the violence and victimization that attends to the process of communal cohesion. The “winner” of Jackson’s lottery, an arbitrarily chosen Other, is stoned to death by the rest of the villagers; likewise, the child chosen by Linoge’s lottery is an appeasing sacrifice made in order to save Little Tall from dreaded cataclysm.

Hopefully, we can begin to recognize here the relevance of Sacvan Bercovitch’s work–his critique of consensus, of “the simultaneity of violence and culture formation.” Jackson underscores such notion in the very name she gives to her scapegoated protagonist: Mrs. “Hutchinson” brings to mind the historical figure Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Massachusetts to Rhode Island by Governor John Winthrop due to her Antinomian interpretations of Puritan theology. In his famous lay sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered as the Arbella sailed toward the New World in 1630, Winthrop attempted to mold private interest to the public good and to get Puritans to consent to their errand in the howling wilderness, so they “might be all knit more neatly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” In his subsequent journal entries regarding the banishment of Anne Hutchinson, though, Winthrop unwittingly reveals the verbal violence inflecting the rhetoric of consensus, the acts of exclusion used to achieve communal cohesion. Drawing on the same language and symbology of his Arabella sermon, Winthrop depicts the dissenting Hutchinson as some witch who has delivered a stillborn monster, a premature fetus whose grotesque, lumpen body is “so confusedly knit together…distinct and not joined together.”

No less so than Jackson’s christening of her main character, the name King gives to his respective scapegoat (the son Mike and Molly Anderson surrender to Linoge) has some significant historical resonance. “Ralph Emerick Anderson” carries definite phonetic echoes of that champion of American individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson declares that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”  Ironically, in Storm of the Century it is Ralph Emerick Anderson who suffers Little Tall’s conspiracy against his natural manhood, and who will see (in Emersonian terms) “the sacred integrity of his own mind” profaned by Linoge’s teachings.

Having considered the three main source texts for Storm of the Century, I want to focus now on how the miniseries Gothicizes the concept of the town meeting. To start with, notice how Linoge transforms the town hall itself into a site of terror. Little Tall believes that the building’s basement will be “the safest place on the island” during the storm, but various individuals at this emergency shelter are surreptitiously driven by Linoge to commit murder and suicide before the sorcerer even arrives in person and calls for a town meeting. The very dilemma that Linoge poses to Little Tall–surrender a single child or risk the annihilation of the entire community–darkens the docket of the subsequent meeting. The pompous town manager Robbie Beals bangs his gavel and tries to treat the matter like “any other piece of town business,” as “an item on the floor” to be debated then voted on. Lapsing into officialese, Robbie orates: “Oyez, oyez–this question has been called. Do we or do we not give Mr. Linoge what he has asked for, pursuant to his promise that he will leave us in peace? How say you, Little Tall? Those in favor, signify in the usual way.” Only Constable Mike Anderson understands the absurdity of the situation, the utter incongruity of form and content: “We’re debating whether or not to give a child to a monster!…Don’t give in to this. This is damnation.” Mike’s protest, though, is drowned out by the majority, and he is literally beaten down by his fellow citizens when he refuses the terms for the town meeting dictated by Linoge. Such forceful suppression of a dissenting voice gives a wicked twist to a statement Mike makes at the start of the narrative (as he laughs off the cost of the preparations for the coming storm): “I hope Robbie Beals can kick my ass for being an alarmist, come town meeting next month.”

A similarly ironic development can be traced from Robbie’s prior warning to Mike that “Come town meeting, there’s maybe going to be a change in law enforcement on Little Tall.”  A transfer of authority does occur at the meeting, but both Robbie and Mike end up displaced. Significantly, Linoge is the one who seizes the pulpit and declares “this meeting at an end.” Again, I offer that Linoge (like a quintessential politician) makes a false promise that he will leave Little Tall in peace if he’s given what he wants. He does take his protege and his exit at tale’s end, but not before he has woven his corrupting presence into the fabric of the town itself. The climactic town meeting serves not to expel Linoge but to incorporate him into the body politic. Ever devious, Linoge employs a rhetoric of consensus even as he perverts and pervades the ritual of the town meeting. He appeals to Little Tall’s sensibilities, reminding the people that they have “always stuck together on the island,” and asserting that “I’m here because island folks know how to pull together for the common good.”  When given what he allegedly wants, Linoge assures the islanders that they have done “a good thing. The right thing. The only thing, really, that loving, responsible people could have done, under the circumstances.” Like some latter-day John Winthrop or Puritan preacher delivering a jeremiad, Linoge also warns the congregation of the disastrous effects should “insular selfishness” prevent them from doing “what’s best for the town”: Little Tall (once the islanders are driven en masse into the sea) will recapitulate the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colonists of 1587.

Linoge perhaps reaches the pinnacle of duplicity when he says, “I’ll give you half an hour. Discuss it…isn’t that what a town meeting is for? And then…Choose.” His imperative tone here, his ultimatum to Little Tall, exposes the pretense of personal freedom and democratic process; the situation serves as a perfect example of what Bercovitch has termed “the imposed duties of assent” to a dominant social order. Linoge seeks not to elicit discussion but to ensure silence: he advises the inhabitants of Little Tall to strike this town meeting from the public record and to keep their scandalous agreement with him a secret. Nor is Linoge much interested in freedom of choice, as we might realize by turning once more to Bercovitch’s work, his critique of the  “rituals of crisis” that served as ready vehicles of social continuity and control: “Millennium or doomsday…it was the choice demanded by the rhetoric of consensus….On those grounds the leaders of American society, from Winthrop through Lincoln, have invoked the threat of doomsday, formulaically, as a rallying cry for cultural revitalization….The point was not to offer alternatives but to induce a state of anxiety, an apocalyptic urgency, that would enforce compliance. And generally, through the Nineteenth Century, the American middle class responded by embracing the covenant. Those who did not join in hope conformed in desperation.” By threatening catastrophe, Linoge turns the town meeting into a ritual of crisis and effects fearful compliance.

Such formulaic manipulation of cultural anxieties through rituals of crisis also calls to mind the conservative account of the poetics and politics of the horror genre itself. For instance, Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror notes that modern horror fictions “might be thought of as ritual of inversions for mass society. And the function of such rituals–as literally acted-out in their plot structure–is to celebrate the dominant cultural viewpoint and its conception of the norm.” We might recall King’s own politically-slanted comments on the horror genre in his 1981 treatise, Danse Macabre:  “Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in the three-piece suit who resides in all of us. We love and need monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings.” In Danse Macabre, King clearly presents the horror writer as “an agent of the status quo” who restores communal order by vanquishing the disruptive monster at the end. Still, we must be careful not to restrict King to this sole viewpoint or to constrict his work to such formula. Linoge in Storm of the Century–described in one stage note as “GRINNING SAVAGELY; looks like Richard Nixon at a political rally”–might be taken as the disguised “Republican” who subverts the subversion-and-containment paradigm itself, paradoxically triumphing even as he is expelled (or, more accurately, removes himself) from Little Tall.

King, in his introduction to the published teleplay, admits that most of his small-town tales “had a certain unexamined postulate at their center: that a malevolent encroachment must always shatter the community, driving the individuals apart and turning them into enemies” (the two novels King cites, Salem’s Lot and Needful Things, show monstrous intruders working a divide-and-conquer scheme, and the climactic defeat of these antagonists leads not to a resumption of the former status quo but to the fiery destruction of Salem’s Lot and Castle Rock, respectively). Storm of the Century, though, provides one more turn of the screw, as Linoge shatters Little Tall by driving the individuals together and turning them into a community. King’s account of Little Tall ends not with a bang but with a whimper, not in fire or even the ice of the titular storm. The narrative concludes at the time of the spring thaw, when the snow that has been metonymically linked with Linoge has melted into the island’s soil. Through a series of divorces and suicides, Little Tall’s community unravels even after Linoge departs with Ralphie Anderson. As Sandra Beals drowns herself in the reach separating island from mainland, one senses that the trickster Linoge’s threatened punishment is beginning to transpire anyway. The word Sandra leaves scrawled on her abandoned rowboat, “Croaton,” also recalls the mysterious clue left by the missing Roanoke colonists, and Mike Anderson’s earlier speculation that Croaton is Linoge’s ancient name only reinforces the notion that Linoge has bequeathed himself to Little Tall and has not been truly exorcised from the community. At the conclusion of the town meeting, the islanders are said to look “like people waking up from a communal nightmare in which they have done some terrible, irrevocable thing.” But by the conclusion of Storm of the Century, the islanders seem to have awoken to a communal nightmare, to the undying guilt over the consensus reached at the town meeting.

King’s Linoge ostensibly destroys Little Tall by exposing and exploiting the inherent contradictions of its rhetoric and rituals of consensus (in this light, we might note the oxymoronic nature of the very name “Little Tall”). Storm of the Century thus pushes towards a more radical account of the cultural work of horror, the unsettling of the nation’s cultural identity explored by Teresa Goddu in her recent study Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation: “The nation’s narratives–its foundational fictions and self-mythologizations–are created through a process of displacement: their coherence depends on exclusion. By resurrecting what these narratives repress, the Gothic disrupts the dream world of national myth with the nightmare of history.” Goddu’s premise seems to concord with Bercovitch’s scholarship and King’s slice of American Gothic in Storm of the Century. First, King challenges the myth of a chosen people, of a divinely-sanctioned Puritan errand into the American wilderness. As Little Tall prepares for the coming storm at the start of the miniseries, the islanders mouth platitudes such as “God takes care of his own” and “Trouble don’t cross the reach,” but the trouble Linoge brings when he singles out Little Tall for an infernal visit undermines such confidence and faith. Secondly, King craftily demonstrates the breakdown of the Puritan hermeneutic of typology that was used to justify the errand and prophesize its end results. In Storm of the Century, things fall apart, the Biblical parallels do not hold.  When Mike Anderson decodes Linoge’s name and recognizes it as an anagram of “Legion,” he reminds us of the Gospel story of the demons who announced (as they were cast into a herd of pigs by Jesus and driven into the sea), “Our name is Legion, for we are many.” But in King’s reconfiguration of this story, it’s Linoge who ominously assumes the Jesus role and the legion of islanders who face extermination via drowning.

Ultimately, King hollows out the town meeting, that hallowed sociopolitcial forum tracing back to Puritan New England. The violence accompanying acts of communal cohesion is exposed when islanders twice attempt to assassinate Linoge during the town meeting. Even more significantly, Linoge warps Little Tall’s sense of consensus so that they forget how to pull together for the common good. During the debate at the town meeting, an impassioned Mike Anderson begs his brethren to “Stand against [Linoge], side by side and shoulder to shoulder. Tell him no in one voice. Do what it says on the door we use to get in hear–trust in God and each other.” But the bonds of trust having been corrupted by Linoge (who knows everyone’s secret sins), the islanders fail to form a united front against Linoge and instead reach a consensus that merely concedes to his dire demands. “Perhaps you tricked yourselves,” is Linoge’s final, taunting retort to Little Tall when accused of somehow having tricked it out of one of its native sons. This appears to be precisely the case, as Little Tall has allowed a sorcerous intruder to turn its most-trusted social apparatus back against the islanders, has let the town meeting become the staging ground for the dark rites of assent.

 

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