Mob Scene: Good Neighbors

In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.

When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.

It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”

A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.

Mob Scene: Nosferatu

The “angry villagers” scene is closely associated with the Universal horror cycle; indeed, the very concept traces back to the Frankenstein films. But a cinematic effort that predates Universal’s Dracula by nearly a decade also forms one of the earliest instances of a monster-movie mob scene.

I refer to the 1922 German Expressionist classic Nosferatu (an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel). In the film’s closing minutes, the natives of the town of Wisborg are restless with dread, as a sudden outbreak of strange death plagues the area. Seeking a scapegoat, the townspeople mark the estate-agent-turned-lunatic Knock (a knock-off of Stoker’s Renfield and Hawkins characters) as a vampire. Such an identification is not hard to imagine, considering that the shock-haired, rotten-toothed Knock forms a just-as-grotesque double of the frightful Count Orlok.

Knock, who has recently escaped from madhouse confinement, is chased through the streets by a fast-amassing, co-ed contingent of Wisborgians. While the people don’t wield torches and pitchforks, they do toss stones at the gleefully grinning fugitive as he straddles a rooftop. For all his obvious insanity, though, Knock does demonstrate a degree of craftiness. He throws his pursuers off course by hanging his coat on a scarecrow in a field. Belatedly recognizing the ruse, the townspeople pummel the effigy in frustration (one wonders if Knock–whose eventual apprehension occurs offscreen–suffers a similar thrashing when the irate locals finally catch up to him).

This somewhat-whimsical (as emphasized by the accompanying orchestra music) mob scene is a curious one, especially considering its placement towards the end of the film. Perhaps it is designed by director F.W. Murnau to accentuate the horror of Nosferatu‘s climax. Because while the populace is out giving madcap chase of Knock, the heroine Ellen is alone indoors and vulnerable to home-invasion by Count Orlok, who has targeted her for some serious harm.

 

Mob Scene: “Shambleau”

Catherine L. Moore’s classic 1933 tale of alien parasitism, “Shambleau” (one of the most popular pieces ever to be published in Weird Tales), opens with a scene of angry villagers on the hunt. “The wild hysteria of the mob” rings in the streets of Lakkdarol, a Wild-West-type Martian settlement–“a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did.” A “motley crowd” has gathered: “Earthmen and Martians and a sprinkling of Venusian swampmen and strange, nameless denizens of unnamed planets–a typical Lakkdarol mob.” But there is nothing typical about the mob scene that unfolds. The pursuers gripped by “the savage exultation of the chase” strangely slip between referring to their quarry as a “girl” and a “thing.” The observation that “They desired the girl with an explicable bloodthirstiness” also intrigues with its ambiguity, its blurring of the line between attacking and attraction. When the protagonist Northwest Smith, in a burst of chivalry, intervenes and claims that the girl is with him, the mob’s “animosity” instantly transforms into “horror” and “disgust.” The scornful crowd abandons Smith “as swiftly as if whatever unknowing sin he had committed were contagious.”

The furious pursuit of the “berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment” might be construed as the tracking of a runaway slave (Moore also invokes the context of witch-hunting), but what Smith fails to realize is that the townspeople’s repeated chant of the foreign word “Shambleau” is the equivalent of Eastern European peasants crying vampire. It’s not until after Smith invites the girl home that he (slowly) discovers the predatorial threat underlying her exotic, feline femininity. The red turban worn on the head of the creature (who is posited as the potential origin of the Earthly myth of the Medusa) conceals a nest of writhing tentacles that surreptitiously attach themselves to Smith and suck his life-force. What’s worse, this awful mode of feeding creates an erotic feeling–an addictive thrill–in the victim. By story’s end, the curious behavior of the mob in the opening scene is clarified (and the desperate urge to exterminate perhaps justified). The Shambleau was chased after so impassionedly not simply because she was some swarthy, criminal Other, but because she was recognized as the source of the guiltiest of pleasures.

 

Mob Scene: “Rawhead Rex”

“Rawhead Rex” (ranked #1 on the recently-concluded Dispatches from the Macabre Republic countdown) is the ultimate monster story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The titular carnivore–“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” the “Lord of the Hardon”–is Barker’s raging, R-rated, phallic-associated answer to King Kong. There’s also a certain Universal-Horror-vibe to Rawhead’s terrorizing of European villagers. It should come as no surprise then, that the story features a mob scene. Or two scenes, if one counts the passing mention (Rawhead’s recollection) of the monster’s capture/live-burial centuries earlier. His hunters used a traditional weapon of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd to smoke the beast out of his lair: “He had been flushed out of his fortress with streaming eyes, confused and fearful, to be met with spike sand nets on every side, and that…thing they had, that sight that could subdue him.”

This all anticipates the mob scene dramatized in the story’s modern-day climax. Rawhead once again suffers from impaired vision, having roasted his own eyeballs while vengefully employing fire against the villagers of Zeal. The real eyesore for Rawhead, though, is the sight of the rediscovered sheela na gig, a stony symbol of female fecundity wielded by protagonist Ron Milton. As Rawhead stands enthralled by the frightful image, he is set upon by his human antagonists. The unsubtly-dubbed “gathering Zealots” attack with their bare hands (“Fists beat on his spine, nails raked his skin”) until someone takes up a knife and savagely hamstrings Rawhead. Immediately, the angry villagers seize the opportunity provided by the beast’s toppling, “overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers.” Rawhead senses his imminent demise yet goes down fighting: “He snaps off a finger here, a face there, but they would not be stopped now. Their hatred was old; in their bones, did they but know it.”

At long last, the Zealots have bested their ancient enemy, but it’s the outsider Ron who delivers the killing blow. Ron, who earlier had witnessed his young son’s head being chomped by the murderous Rawhead, returns the favor by pulverizing the creature’s skull with the dreaded stone: “The King went out…once and for all.” Out, in keeping with Barker’s unflinchingly graphic narrative, in a “brain spattered” blaze of gory.

 

Mob Scene: “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”

The mob scene as splatterpunk extravaganza…

Amongst other things, zombies speak to the basic human fear of the mob, of being individually outnumbered by the ill-intentioned. But such an encounter can be dramatized with wicked wit, as witnessed in David J. Schow’s 1989 story, “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” (collected in Zombie Jam). It’s one of the most famous–and outrageous–pieces of zombie fiction ever written, featuring a 400-pound survivor of the apocalypse (who lives to feast on undead flesh) and an evangelical preacher leading a rotten congregation of Born-Agains (who are controlled via voodoo-like doses of rattlesnake venom).

The climactic showdown, as the Right Reverend Jerry directs his flock to attack Wormboy’s heavily-fortified graveyard stronghold, is an absolute carnival of carnage (consider this grotesque nugget, as Wormboy shoots the zombie dubbed Barf Eater for its particularly indiscriminate palate: “Its limbs stiffened straight as hydrostatic pressure blew its head apart into watermelon glop. Then it came undone altogether, collapsing into a mound of diarrheic putrescence that bubbled and flowed around the pipework.”). What prevents the action from becoming submerged in the sophomoric is Schow’s sheer stylistic verve, his wordplay and unabashedly vivid imagery. Even as Jerry works at “rousing the rabble” with his Bible thumping, the reverend’s rhetoric is countered by the narrative’s consistently irreverent/ironic tone. Jerry gets a nasty surprise when he verbally and physically tries to urge one of his holy soldiers “Onward!”: “The flat of his hand met all the resistance of cold oatmeal. A cow patty had more tensile strength and left less mess.” When Wormboy (armed with enough weaponry to outfit a whole squad of monster-hunting angry villagers) guns down one of Jerry’s decomposing deacons, “Something fist-sized and mulchy smacked Jerry’s shoulder and blessed it with a smear of yellow.” Nevertheless, the Born-Agains continue their pursuit of the morbidly obese Wormboy: “The closer the congregation staggered to the graveyard, the better they could smell this sinner, and his fatted calves.”

There’s probably nothing I can write here, though, that adequately captures the manic energy and macabre fireworks on display in this extended sequence. Amidst all the splatter, the scene offers critical commentary on religious fervor and unchecked appetite alike. As seen in the story “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” (which I covered in a previous post), Schow is no stranger to intelligent variations on the angry-villagers motif, and “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” forms another unforgettable example of a mob scene.

 

Mob Scene: “The Crowd”

Curiosity killed the catastrophe sufferer.

The eponymous ensemble in Ray Bradbury’s 1943 short story “The Crowd” appears seemingly out of nowhere, and arrives too quickly at the scene of traffic accidents: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” Honing in on a big bang, the amassing crowd is like “an explosion in reverse, the fragments of a detonation sucked back to the point of impulsion.” Matters grow more uncanny when Bradbury’s protagonist, the car crash survivor Spallner, discovers in his obsessive investigations the same set of faces looming over victims at random accident scenes over the years. Spallner isn’t sure if these figures manifesting “at any public demonstration of this thing called death” are “vultures, hyenas, or saints.” By tale’s end, Spallner (after getting into a second wreck) comes to suspect that the crowd is comprised of the specters of past accident victims. Worse, they seem to be stealthy murderers, who dispatch the wounded under the guise of assistance (e.g. moving the body of someone with a spinal injury).

Bradbury’s classic story demonstrates that not all mobs operate via the lofting of torch and pitchfork. Their menace exists less in their othering impulse than in their smothering impulse. In the final paragraphs, an incapacitated Spallner looks up at the grim witnesses of his predicament and thinks, “You’re the crowd that’s always in the way, using up good air that a dying man’s lungs are in need of, using up space he should be using to lie in alone. Tramping on people to make sure they die, that’s you.”

“The Crowd” takes a commonplace idea–the propensity for gawkers to gather in morbid curiosity at accident scenes–and adds a supernatural/sinister twist. Bradbury also touches on something primal here, reminding readers that to be human is to be born into disadvantage: throughout life, every individual is grossly outnumbered by other people. This is quite a daunting notion, even if such multitudes (contra “The Crowd”) don’t prove to be something other than people.

 

Mob Scenes: Lovecraft Country

Given its pointed combination of fantastic horror and American history, and its critical engagement with H.P. Lovecraft’s bigotry, it’s no shock that Lovecraft Country features a racially-charged mob scene. What is surprising, though, is that the same incident–the Tulsa riot of 1921, one of the ugliest events in the history of the Republic–is handled so differently in Matt Ruff’s source novel and the HBO series it inspired.

In “The Narrow House” section of Ruff’s novel, Montrose Turner is sent on a mission to retrieve a group of magic tomes from a named Henry Narrow (an alias assumed by Hiram Winthrop’s fugitive son). Arriving in Aken, Illinois, Montrose learns that Narrow is already dead, but interacts with Narrow’s ghost inside an apparition of the man’s house. As the price of his posthumous assistance, Narrow requests that Montrose tell him a story, and Montrose proceeds to relate his experiences in the Tulsa riot. Montrose explains how the riot started: the arrest of a black man named Dick Rowland after he was (falsely) accused of attacking a young white woman named Sarah Page; a white mob’s attempt to lynch Rowland at the jailhouse; the intercession of armed black men on Rowland’s behalf; the shootout that followed, and the eruption of violence as the white mob endeavored to torch a wealthy black neighborhood. Montrose’s father Ulysses was one of the neighborhood’s defenders against the white mob, and is fatally wounded while trying to protect Montrose. Montrose’s tale concords with the one then shared by the ghost Henry, who was himself shot and killed (along with his colored wife and child), and had his house burned down by a racist mob that refused to welcome a mixed family into the Aken community.

In the “Rewind 1921” episode of the HBO series, Montrose, his son Atticus, and Atticus’s girlfriend Leti all time travel back to Tulsa to retrieve the precious Book of Names (which they’ve learned was secretly possessed by the Turner family, but perished in the fires set by white arsonists). In a tense sequence that stretches almost the entire episode, the Tulsa riot explodes around them as the protagonists attempt to locate the book. The violence is especially hard-hitting when witnessed onscreen–the brutal murder, for instance, of a young Montrose’s friend, who is shot in the head at point blank range. Panoramic shots of the raging inferno after the neighborhood is set ablaze reveal the absolute war zone into which Tulsa has been transformed.

In Ruff’s novel, Montrose’s father acts and dies heroically, whereas in “Rewind 1921” he is shown to be an abusive, homophobic alcoholic. The main difference between book and series, though, is in the handling of the Tulsa riot. As impactful as the imagery of mob violence is in the episode, it lacks the backstory furnished in “The Narrow House,” and is employed more as a dramatic backdrop–another dire obstacle thrown in the time travelers’ way. Ruff’s book section (which uses the testimony–quoted in The Chicago Defender–of an African-American survivor of the riot as an epigraph) deals less sensationally but more informatively with the historical events. Both book and series do a fine job of demonstrating how that fateful day in 1921 has scarred Montrose and shaped his character, but the book proves more effective in its more naturalistic (even as Montrose converses with a ghost) invocation of the ignominious moment in American history that played out so chaotically and devastatingly in Oklahoma.

 

 

Mob Scene: “The Shelter” (The Twilight Zone)

In this 1961 episode from season 3 of The Twilight Zone, a birthday party for a beloved doctor is interrupted by a sobering report on the radio: the government has detected unidentified objects rocketing towards the U.S. A state of yellow alert is promptly declared, and citizens are advised to take shelter. Soon thereafter, Doctor Stockton’s frantic friends and neighbors return, begging him to admit them into the bomb shelter in the cellar of his home (the very refuge they previously ridiculed him for building). Regretfully, the doctor cannot oblige them, since the shelter is designed for three people only (Stockton, his wife Grace, and son Paul). And thus the fallout begins before any bomb drops.

Turned away, the desperate neighbors quickly turn on each other. One of them, Frank, exhibits an ugly anti-Semitic streak, railing against “foreigners” like his friend Marty Weiss, “pushy, grabby semi-Americans.” The line between self and other gets sharply etched; when the idea of obtaining a pipe (to use as a battering ram) from a man on an adjacent street is raised, the group bristles at the thought of letting anyone else know about the existence of the shelter. “We’d have a whole mob to contend with,” one neighbor forewarns, “a whole bunch of strangers.” Ironically, these people don’t realize that they have already degenerated into a mob themselves, acting irrationally and violently amidst their fear. Knowing they all can’t fit inside the shelter doesn’t stop them from trying to bust it open (and ensuring that nobody ends up protected).

In a not-unexpected twist, a second news report (sounding just as the group savages its way into the bomb shelter) announces a false alarm: those were satellites, not nuclear warheads, that had been picked up by military radar. The tension diffused, the group recovers from its momentary lapse into lunacy. The neighbors offer to pay for the damages to the doctor’s property, and even propose throwing a block party the next night to celebrate the return to normalcy. The shell-shocked-looking Stockton, though, scoffs at the notion:

I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore. […] I wonder if any one of us has any idea of what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us. A lot of naked, wild animals, who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

“The Shelter” is certainly a period piece, addressing the dread manifested by the Cold War. But it also illustrates the timelessness of The Twilight Zone. The episode is just as relevant six decades later, in these chaotic–and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic–times. Right now, we need to take heed to Rod Serling’s concluding comments: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

 

Mob Scene: We Sold Our Souls

In the “Master of Puppets” chapter of Grady Hendrix’s 2018 heavy-metal horror novel We Sold Our Souls, protagonist Kris Pulaski is a fugitive on the run, framed for a series of murders. Worse, her nemesis, the rock god Terry Hunt (who has made a deal with forces much more dangerous than the Devil) has alerted his legions of fans nationwide to be on the lookout for her. Inevitably, Kris is spotted at a highway rest stop, and the gathering crowd immediately begins to menace her verbally and physically. What is interesting here is the technological emphasis: this mob wields not torches and pitchforks but cellphones: “Kris stopped, turned, and saw a wall of people behind the girl, all of them bearing down on her, all of their phones out, all of them staring at her tiny image on their screens, fitting her into their phones, capturing her in their hands” (218). When a suspicious white van at the rest stop begins to blast a song from Terry’s group Koffin, the music transforms the singer’s loyal followers into a viciously homicidal “herd” (220).

Just as Kris is about to be mauled, her former band mate (and current sole ally) JD rolls into the rest step. Kris hops in, but the car is surrounded before it can make its getaway: “The car began to rock on its shocks as the screaming crowd pushed it from side to side” (222). The real mayhem, though, doesn’t kick in until the driver’s side window is shattered:

Pebbles of safety glass showered [JD’s] hair and face and bounced off Kris’s neck, unleashing the roar of the furious crowd. Hands slapped into JD’s face, grabbing his hair, his shirt, his arms. Kris screamed, and JD thrashed and bellowed, but that exposed his tongue and fingers forced their way inside his mouth, hooked his left cheek, grabbed his tongue by the root. JD clung to the wheel as hundreds of hands pulled him out through the window by his lips. Hands pried his fingers off the steering wheel, breaking them with hollow pops, and JD screamed as his left cheek stretched like bubblegum, and then fissures appeared, filled with red, widened, and his cheek came loose from his face and white gobbets of fat and red blood flowed down his hairy chin and the front of his shirt in a bib.  (222-23)

Grim stuff, for sure. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of JD’s suffering. I won’t spoil the reader’s experience here by quoting the passage of JD’s subsequent annihilation, but let’s just say the paragraph has a certain splatterpunk panache. Kris, meanwhile, does manage to escape the lynch mob, although hardly unscathed either physically (she has hunks of hair ripped right out of her scalp) or emotionally.

Hendrix’s short chapter leaves a lasting impression, and constitutes one of the most visceral and chilling mob scenes ever to appear in a horror novel.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand (2)

Last month, I covered a mob scene from early on in Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, The Stand. Today I would like to return to that novel, which climaxes with a very interesting variation on a mob scene.

Late in chapter 73, Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner are delivered to the front lawn of the MGM Grand, where they face a gruesome execution (being torn limb from limb by a rigged apparatus). Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas minions have all gathered for the impending bloodletting:

They spread out across the lawn in a rough circle. They were standing in the casino parking lot, on the steps leading up to the lobby doors, in the turnaround drive where incoming guests had once parked while the doorman whistled up a bellhop. They spilled out into the street itself. Some of the younger men had hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders for a better look at the upcoming festivities. The low murmuring was the sound of the crowd-animal. (1077)

Such set-up has the making for a quintessential mob scene, but the demeanor of the crowd-animal proves surprisingly subdued: “Larry ran his eyes over them, and every eye he met turned away. Every face seemed pallid, distant, marked for death and seeming to know it.” Scattered catcalls and a small cheer when Larry spits on the chains presented to him give him a momentary hope that the crowd might rise up against Flagg, “[b]ut his heart didn’t believe it. Their faces were too pale, too secretive. The defiance from the back was meaningless. […] There was doubt here–he could feel it–and disaffection. But Flagg colored even that. These people would steal away in the dead of night for some of the great empty spaces that the world had become” (1078). For Flagg, these violent public spectacles are less an administration of justice than an exercise in crowd control; he keeps his people in line by keeping them cowed by fear. Even as things start to fall apart in Las Vegas here at novel’s end, Flagg’s terror still creates restraint. When Larry shouts a warning to the crowd that next time it might be their turn to die this way, he can’t quite bring the crowd’s energy to critical mass: “That low murmur again, rising and angry…and the silence” (1079).

Whitney Horgan, one of Flagg’s own underlings, picks up the cause for Larry, decrying the barbarity of the ritual. But Whitney, too, fails to stoke a response: “Dead silence from the crowd. They might all have been turned to gravestones” (1081). When Whitney is dragged forward by Flagg’s black magic (“His sprung and mushy black loafers whispered through the grass and he moved toward the dark man like a ghost”), the witnesses to this evil marvel remain mute: “The crowd had become a slack jaw and a staring eye.” Flagg’s graphic destruction of Whitney with a “blue ball of fire” similarly elicits only quiet amazement: “The crowd released a long, sibilant sound: Aaaahhhh. It was the sound people had made on the Fourth of July when the fireworks display had been particularly good” (1082). Rather than a rabbleroused mob, Flagg’s people have been left utterly agog.

All this, though, is King’s means of setting the stage for a stunning reversal. Suddenly, the crowd does in fact turn unruly: “There was a scream, high, clear, and freezing. Someone broke and ran. Then someone else. And then the crowd, already on an emotional hairtrigger, broke and stampeded” (1083). All hell breaks loose upon the last-minute arrival of the irradiated, warhead-lugging Trashcan Man: “He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself” (1084). Dread of nuclear annihilation detonates crowd chaos: “They ran, scattering to all points of the compass, pounding across the lawn of the MGM Grand, across the street, toward the Strip. They had seen the final guest, arrived at last like some grim vision out of a horror tale. They had seen, perhaps, the raddled face of some final awful retribution” (1083). Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is thus reenacted on a grand scale.

Curiously, Mick Garris’s 1994 miniseries adaptation presents an exact reversal of King’s mob scene. When Larry and Ralph arrive, the crowd is a vibrant throng, barely controllable in its bloodthirstiness. These Las Vegans push and chant and brandish their guns; they cheer Flagg like a rock star when he takes the stage. Then, when Trashcan Man crashes this Times-Square-type party, the crowd just stands immobile, rooted in predominantly mute place.

The climax of King’s horror epic has always been somewhat problematical. The “Hand of God” (1084) that triggers the warhead is too much of a “deus ex machina” plot-resolver (and also appears lame when visualized by the ostensible special fx of the miniseries). But hearkening to the deliberate beats here–as King continually diffuses a mob scene and then allows it to explode at last–does make the ending of The Stand much more appreciable.

 

Work Cited

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1990.