Mob Scene: The Stand

Chapter 26 of Stephen King’s 1990 novel The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition might rank as the most horrifying chapter the author ever wrote. It presents a montage of scenes dramatizing the disintegration of American civilization as the “Captain Trips” superflu virus wreaks havoc on the populace and precipitates mass rioting and murderous rampaging across the nation. For instance:

TV newscasters held at gunpoint by army thugs and forced to feed misinformation about the outbreak manage a brief coup (before being “summarily executed on charges of treason” [213]), during which they air footage of a military vehicle dumping bodies onto a barge in Boston Harbor: “women, old men, children, police, nurses; they came in a cartwheeling flood that seemed never to end. At some point during the film-clip it became clear that the soldiers were using pitchforks to get them out” (213-14). In Duluth, Minnesota, a man walking the street wearing a sandwich board bearing such handwritten wisdom as “THE EVIL DAYS ARE AT HAND” learns the hard way the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy: “Four young men in motorcycle jackets, all of them with bad coughs and runny noses, set upon the man in the khaki shorts and beat him unconscious with his own sandwich board. then they fled, one of them calling back hysterically over his shoulder: ‘Teach you to scare people! Teach you to scare people, you half-baked freak!'” (217)  At Kent State University, thousands of nonviolent protesters are mowed down by machine-gun fire; in the midst of this “turkey shoot” (224), the soldiers turn their weapons on one another. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is “gutted” by widespread rioting and looting; “as daylight left this flat green land,” the city “looked like the aftermath of some monster New Year’s Eve party after sodden sleep had claimed the last of the revelers” (228).

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the chapter, though, details an episode of ultraviolent reality TV: “At 9:16 P.M., EST, those still well enough to watch television in the Portland, Maine, area, tuned in WCSH-TV and watched with numbed horror as a huge black man, naked except for a pink leather loincloth and a Marine officer’s cap, obviously, ill, performed a series of sixty-two public executions” (226). This hulking lunatic is the leader of a black “junta” of deserting soldiers that has taken over the set of the “Dialing for Dollars” game show and uses a large glass drum to draw the driver’s licenses of some unlucky winners: “‘Inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,’ the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger. There was a large smear of blood and brains behind the spot where PFC Stern was being forced to kneel, and now he added his own contribution.” Further pandemonium occurs when the regular army breaks into the studio and goes to war with the deserters:

The black man in the loincloth went down almost immediately, cursing, sweating, riddled with bullets, and firing his automatic pistol crazily into the floor. The renegade who had been operating the #2 camera was shot in the belly, and as he leaned forward to catch his spilling guts, his camera pivoted slowly around, giving his audience a leisurely pan shot of hell. The semi-naked guards were returning fire, and the soldiers in the respirators were spraying the entire audience area. The unarmed soldiers in the middle , instead of being rescued, found that their executions had only been speeded up. (227)

Underscoring the blackly comic absurdity of the scene, the bloody orgy is finally “replaced on home screens by a picture of a cartoon man who was staring glumly at a cartoon TV. On the cartoon TV was a sign that said: SORRY, WE’RE HAVING PROBLEMS!” (228).

King punctuates the chapter with a transcript of a State of the Union address that evening, in which the President’s claims about the virulence of this flu strain are belied by his own fits of coughing and sneezing. Likewise, the disingenuity of the President’s attempt to pass off occupying army forces as mere National Guardsmen “called out in some areas to protect the populace against hooligans, vandals, and scare-mongers” (230) is proven by the various preceding scenes of mayhem in the chapter.

Chapter 26 of The Stand is frighteningly plausible; readers in this present time of the coronavirus pan(dem)ic can only hope that it is not also terribly prescient. Let us pray that we can trust more in the truth of King’s recently-tweeted PSA than in the nightmare scenario of his fiction.

 

WORK CITED

King, Stephen. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Mob Scene: The Addams Family

From its Karloffian butler Lurch to a winking instance of dead-frog revivification, the latest film version of The Addams Family clearly invokes James Whale’s 1931 film FrankensteinThe Addams Family, though, also hearkens back to Universal horror in its featuring of a pair of mob scenes.

In the film’s opening, the nuptials of Gomez and Morticia are interrupted by angry villagers–a horde of crusty rustics wielding torches and pitchforks and decrying the presence of such “monsters” and “freaks” in the area. This being a children’s animated film (rated PG for “macabre and suggestive humor, and some action”), the proceedings do not turn too grim (the sword-wielding Addams fend off the villagers by causing the latter’s pants to fall down around their ankles). Nevertheless, such expressed intolerance chases the Addams from the Old Country, forcing them to relocate to New Jersey (“Somewhere horrible. Somewhere corrupt. Somewhere no one in their right mind would be caught dead in!”).

There the Addams convert a former asylum for the criminally insane into the family mansion looming remotely on a hilltop. But after thirteen years of relative isolation, the Addams come into contact with the locals and soon discover that the persecution of perceived otherness exists in the New World as well. In the film’s climax, the roused rabble (led by duplicitous designer Margaux Needler) nearly destroys the Addams home with a boulder-launching catapult. These rabid neighborhood watchdogs eventually repent, and help repair the damage caused, yet this happy ending does not blunt the film’s skewering, American Gothic sensibility. The seemingly idyllic slice of suburban engineering dubbed Assimilation (a community that works to eradicate difference rather than accept it) is shown to have various shades of darkness underlying its Day-Glo veneer.

The Addams Family is a mordantly witty and extremely enjoyable film, whose skillful inclusion of mob scenes aligns it with eminent animated horror films such as Paranorman and Frankenweenie.

 

Mob Scene: “Herbert West: Reanimator”

In my last Lore Report, I noted an angry mob scene (the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 in New York City) that resulted from real-life incidents of body snatching. The same dynamic can be seen playing out in fictional form, in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 weird tale, “Herbert West: Reanimator.”

Lovecraft presents a gruesome variation on the Frankenstein story; like his literary precursor, Victor Frankenstein, the eponymous medical man West seeks to bring the dead back to life. As his outre experiments naturally require a supply of dead bodies, West is not hesitant to resort to grave robbing. West’s series of maniacal miscreations over the years, though, come back to haunt him in the story’s climax. A “grotesquely heterogeneous” “horde”–led by a headless nightmare in a Canadian officer’s uniform (Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, reanimated by West six years earlier in Flanders during World War I)–breaks into West’s sub-cellar laboratory in a home neighboring a Boston burial ground. The frightfully silent assailants might not be wielding torches and pitchforks, but their own hands prove sufficiently deadly. The story’s horrified (and perhaps unreliable) narrator recounts: “Then they all sprang at [West] and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”

“Herbert West: Reanimator” (a tale undoubtedly overshadowed by Stuart Gordon’s gory, campy film adaptation) was dismissed by Lovecraft himself as a piece of hack work, but this proto-zombie story offers plenty of macabre mayhem and grim thrills. And its climax reverses the angry-villager formula that would be popularized by Universal horror films a decade later. Here it is not a group of stoked locals stalking a creature, but the vengeful monsters themselves who have banded together to track down and viciously execute the unscrupulous resurrectionist West.

 

 

Mob Scene: The Bottoms

Joe R. Lansdale’s 2000 novel The Bottoms (an expansion of his 1999 novella “Mad Dog Summer”) forms an extended riff on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are Southern Gothic takes on the coming-of-age tale, and share many characteristics–tomboy younger sisters, rabid dogs, legendary boogeymen (Lansdale answers Lee’s Boo Radley with “The Goat Man”), and critiques of Deep Southern society as viewed through children’s eyes. Significantly, the plots of both novels also feature a mob scene.

In The Bottoms, the narrator Harry’s father (the constable in their Depression-era East Texas community) has been keeping an elderly black man named Mose (a person of interest in the investigation of a series of brutal rapes/murders in the area) hidden away. When the locals find out, though, they automatically deem Mose the killer, and band together as a “lynch mob” intent on dispensing rough justice. Harry and his dad rush to the scene, the latter trying to avert tragedy by calling for the need for a fair trial. But his attempt to talk sense is rebuffed by the mob, which is led by the despicably racist (and allegorically named) Mr. Nation: “He ain’t gonna be turned loose,” Nation taunts, “except at the end of the rope.” When Harry’s father physically intervenes to prevent the lynching, “the crowd let[s] out a sound like an animal in pain,” and pounces on the constable and his son.

Atticus Finch (with some timely assistance from his kids) in To Kill a Mockingbird is able to stave off an angry mob determined to lynch a black man accused of rape. For all the parallels that Lansdale draws with Lee’s masterwork, though, he takes matters in a shocking direction by having the mob succeed in executing Mose. The lynching in described in unflinching and unsettling detail (“Mose dropped with a snapping sound, started to kick fast and spit blood-tinted foam”), and when the pummeled Harry recovers consciousness he discovers a nightmarish sight:

Mose hung above us, his tongue long and black and thick as a sock stuffed with paper. His eyes bulged out of his head like little green persimmons. Someone had pulled down his pants and cut him. Blood dripped from between Mose’s legs, onto the ground.

Graphic and emotionally grueling, the mob scene in The Bottoms is not easily forgotten.

 

Mob Scene: IT

Approximately midway through Stephen King’s monster opus, IT, a mob scene breaks out.

The novel’s “Third Interlude” section (another entry in Mike Hanlon’s journal of Derry’s dark history) details the very public execution of the Bradley Gang (King’s fictionalized version of the Brady Gang, who met a grim fate in Bangor) in October 1929. Previously identified when attempting to purchase ammunition at Machen’s Sporting Goods store, the fugitive group of bankrobbers ride into a barrage of gunfire that makes the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde seem like a roll-out of the old welcome wagon by comparison. It’s a case of bloodlust run amok, of community-wide vigilante violence (“There were men everywhere, men with guns, standing in doorways and sitting on steps and looking out of windows”). With “fifty, sixty men firing all at once,” the scene “sounded like the Battle of the Marne.” Overkill is undoubtedly the order of the day, as the criminals’ vehicles are obliterated (“By the time the firing stopped, those cars didn’t look like cars at all anymore, just hunks of junk with glass around them”), and the members of the Bradley Gang themselves brutally dispatched (Arthur Malloy has his throat torn “wide open” by a bullet; George Bradley’s gun moll, Marie Hauser, has “one of her eyes shot out”; as for  Bradley: “someone pulped the back of his head with a shotgun blast”). This bloody massacre right in the center of Derry’s streets precipitates a wave of shame and denial–most of the perpetrators are loathe to admit they were even present in Derry that grim day.

In and of itself, the gunning down of the Bradley Gang is a perfect example of the ugly results when hotter heads prevail. There is a further turn of the screw to this particular mob scene, though: Mike identifies the incident as another “monstrous sacrifice” that served to stir It from a quarter-century-long hibernation period and thus unofficially initiated Its next feeding cycle. Appropriately enough, various vigilantes report seeing a clown (none other than Pennywise It-self,Mike knows) gleefully joining in on the shooting spree. Noting a nearby county fair operating at the time, the recounting Norbert Keene speculates to Mike: “Maybe one of them [clowns from the fair] heard we were going to have our own little carnival and rode down because he wanted to be in on it.” The macabre irony of such statement is that Derry’s carnival of violence has been heavily influenced by the town’s own long-resident clown. Malignancy, as Mike’s recurring journal entries illustrate, is deep-seated in Derry’s body politic, and is anything but excised by the execution of a gang of designated outsiders.

 

Mob Scene: “The Lynching” by Claude McKay

Over the years, I have covered many examples of mob scenes–of instances of violent Othering and mass misbehavior–in film, television, and fiction. But as Claude McKay’s 1920 poem “The Lynching” (collected in Harlem Shadows) illustrates, the mob scene also has its place in American verse.

Written as a Shakespearean sonnet, “The Lynching” jars with its deliberate dissonance between the elegant poetic form and the particularly ugly subject matter treated here. Evincing a Gothic sensibility, McKay’s lines record sadistic impulses (the victim of the titular crime has died “by the cruelest way of pain”) and present horrific images (hung and burned, a black man has been reduced to a “swinging char”). The poem, though, hits hardest in its sestet section: the last six lines describe the crowd of morbidly curious gawkers that has gathered the next day “to view / the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” McKay is unsparing in his indictment, as the foulness of the allegedly fairer sex is highlighted by the complete absence of “sorrow” in the “steely blue” eyes of the women who “thronged to look” at the corpse. The concluding couplet makes for a devastating clincher, marking a perversion of public celebration and foreboding a dark generational legacy to such scene: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”

McKay’s opening octave alludes strongly to the Crucifixion (ostensibly the quintessential example of execution-as-public-spectacle). But whereas Christ died to take away the sins of the world, “The Lynching” points in a more pessimistic direction. “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” McKay writes, referencing an innocent man’s crime of possessing black skin in a racist white society. This line also resonates with Gothicism, though, suggesting a problematical impingement of the past, the continuously haunting impact of ignominious history.

The racial underpinnings of American Gothic is well- and long-established in literary criticism (cf. Leslie Fiedler’s oft-cited remark in Love and Death in the American Novel: “The proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged”). Perhaps this aspect of the genre is sometimes seized too readily upon by academics, but a poem such as McKay’s “The Lynching” clearly requires no critical stretch to grasp its concerns with black-white relations and racial violence in this country.

[Note: for an excellent overview of this subject, see Hollis Robbins’s essay (which covers McKay’s poem) “The Literature of Lynching.”]

Mob Scene: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book and film)

Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).

In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.

The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.

As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.”  There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.

Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.

 

 

Mob Scene: The Highwaymen

Not every mob scene is concerned with hostile ostracizing. As the Netflix original film The Highwaymen demonstrates, sometimes the villagers aren’t angry, just downright mad.

The film forms a counterpoint to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn’s Academy-Award winner was considered edgy and graphically violent at the time, but today seems somewhat frivolous, treating the Barrow Gang’s murderous interstate crime spree almost like zany hijinks (complete with rollicking banjo music to accompany bank-robbery getaways). John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (co-starring a superb Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) doesn’t romanticize the notorious criminals/lovers; instead the emphasis is on the monstrosity of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the acts of cold-blooded savagery they commit. In contrast to Bonnie and Clyde‘s spotlighting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s characters, the pair of public enemies here are kept mostly offscreen. The Highwaymen is the story not of the killers but the pair of former Texas Rangers–Frank Hamer and Maney Gault–tasked with tracking them down.

In the film’s climax, the diligent Rangers finally get their man (and woman), and Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by a ferocious firing squad. The mob scene follows upon this dispensation of bloody justice, as the bullet-riddled car containing the corpses of the executed fugitives is towed into the nearby town of Arcadia, Louisiana. Word of the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde has spread quickly, and a huge crowd has gathered in the street, driven less by morbid curiosity than the crazy desire for souvenirs. The frenzied masses push past the police to get at the open-windowed car, snatching at the inert bodies and tearing at their clothing. The Highwaymen exposes the grotesquerie of the cult of idolatry that formed around Bonnie and Clyde, as a significant portion of the American public treated the homicidal duo as Depression-era celebrities, admirable antiheroes. What makes this mob scene that much more harrowing is that it actually happened (the real-life details are even more disturbing, with someone going so far as to try to hack off Clyde’s trigger finger; the “death car” itself would subsequently become a macabre tourist attraction).

Bonnie and Clyde have been fictionalized before in American Gothic works such as Norman Partridge’s hard-boiled/supernatural hybrid “Red Right Hand” (which riffs on the 1967 film’s scene of Faye Dunaway fleeing through a cornfield) and Stephen King’s novella 1922 (whose “Sweetheart Bandits” form a clear analogue to the Barrow gangsters). The dark and gritty (and immensely entertaining) The Highwaymen, though, treats directly with the historical figures, presenting a memorable demythologizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime, and a sharp indictment of the misguided, morally-suspect American public.

 

Mob Scenes: The Sopranos

Even the godfather of mob series offers us a mob scene…

And not just any scene featuring a rambunctious rabble, but one including vintage angry villagers. I refer to episode 5.11 of The Sopranos, “The Test Dream.” Worried that his AWOL cousin Tony Blundetto is going to whack Phil Leotardo and set off a war between the New York and New Jersey families, Tony Soprano has one epic nightmare. In the middle of this midnight mind movie, Tony fails to prevent Blundetto’s mob hit, and is challenged by a huge crowd of disapproving onlookers with questions of “Why didn’t you stop him?” The scene then cuts to Tony being chased down a dark alley by the crowd, who suddenly turn into Europeans in lederhosen, with flaming torches and the leashes of barking hounds in their hands. This quick and terrifically surreal reference perfectly captures Tony’s fear of persecution, while also highlighting his deep awareness of classic films.

I’ll admit, I was never especially fond of this late-season episode of The Sopranos. I felt the dream sequence was too long (stalling the show’s narrative drive) and just too damned weird. Nevertheless, I have to give all due respect to David Chase’s wise-guy drama for its knowing nod to Universal’s Frankenstein movies.

 

Mob Scene: Godless

While never quite descending to the grotesquerie and vileness of Deadwood, Netflix’s Godless is doubtless a grim and Gothic western. The limited series presents no shortage of disturbing scenes: a sick house littered with smallpox victims; rapist slavers wearing buffalo heads; a family butchered by a pair of sociopath sons. Godless features a quintessential Gothic hero-villain, in the dangerous person of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, in a deservedly Emmy-winning role). A revenge-obsessed amputee (who carries around his rotting, bug-swarmed arm like a creepy keepsake), Griffin recalls Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. With his penchant for twisted preaching, he also traces his literary lineage back to the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Furthermore, Griffin is responsible for a massacre that gives a wicked twist to that American Gothic staple, the angry mob scene.

In the opening episode, “An Incident in Creede,” a brutal train robbery by the Griffin Gang is foiled by former member Roy Goode, who intervenes and speeds off with the money from the heist. When Griffin and his men leave to give chase after this rural American Robin Hood, the surviving members of the the Creede community apprehend the deviant Devlin brothers (who’d been incapacitated by Goode) and quickly sentence them to death by hanging. The public execution, though, takes a spectacularly violent turn when Griffin (his left arm now a dangling wreck after taking a bullet from Goode) and his outlaw entourage double back into town. Rescuing the Devlin brothers from the noose is not enough; Griffin commands his band of bandits to murder the people of Creede and burn every last building to the ground (the town is reduced to an apocalyptic ruin). “Them sons a bitches lynched the damn mob,” recounts Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), who in the series’ opening scene was driven to his knees by the sight of a young Creede boy strung up high by the Griffin Gang. The stunning reversal of fortune in Creede (and Griffin’s ominous promise to decimate any community that harbors Goode) sets the stage for the rest of Godless‘s engrossing run.

I don’t want to misrepresent this series by painting it as uniformly dark; there’s plenty of (dry) humor and (tear-jerking) romance splashed across the dramatic canvas as well. Godless offers jaw-dropping cinematography, the sprawling scenery forming an incredible backdrop for the broad cast of richly-drawn characters (heroes and villains alike). An epically good western, Godless is as strong an original series ever to stream on Netflix. I could shoot myself for not having followed its trail sooner.