The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Vintage Creepshow

Stephen King’s and George Romero’s Creepshow was a determinedly referential endeavor–a concerted effort to recreate the horror sensibility of E.C.-style comics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Shudder spin-off series, which faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of the original movie, also nods knowingly at horror history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Creepshow‘s second-season premiere.

“Monster Kid,” the episode’s opening segment, is a love letter to utter monstrophilia. Joe Aurora is a Dracula-dressing, Bela-Lugosi-quoting, model-kit-obsessed horror hound. His bedroom is a treasure trove of monster memorabilia. The segment (which begins with a black-and-white scene fantasized by Joe) invokes the Universal monsters in the form of the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (at one point, Joe also watches Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). There’s a clip of a horror host addressing “boils and ghouls”–a pun that surely resonates with fans of Tales from the Crypt. With its voodoo-doll plot element, “Monster Kid” even recalls the frame story of the Creepshow film. Despite striking a sweet note in its invocation of Monster Culture, the segment does not shy away from the typical dramatization of grim comeuppance, as Kevin Dillon’s obnoxious character ultimately gets transformed into Johnny Trauma.

Substituting the satiric for the nostalgic, the second segment (“Public Television of the Damned”) is a gonzo homage to the Evil Dead franchise coupled with a send-up of public television programming. All hell threatens to break loose when Ted Raimi shows up on “The Appraiser’s Road Trip” with a copy of the Necronomicon; a PBS-esque pledge drive turns into a demonic demand for a pledge of human souls to the book. Gleefully over-the-top (a Bob Ross knockoff forms a badass hero here), the adult-humored segment features scenes of wild violence that would make Sam Raimi proud. The marvelously macabre makeup (courtesy of Creepshow producer Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group) also expertly evokes the Evil Dead.

With its commitment to vintage horror, the season 2 premiere forms a modern classic. If the same level of reverent retrospection is maintained throughout, viewers have a lot to look forward to this season.

 

Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

The Night Stalker at 49

On this date in 1972, The Night Stalker premiered as the ABC Movie of the Week (garnering the highest ratings for any made-for-TV film up to that time). The movie introduced the world to that bloodhound of an investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak, here tracking the story of a series of killings in Las Vegas in which the female victims have been drained of vital fluids via a bite to the neck. Nearly a half-century now after the initial airing, it’s no terrible plot spoiler to note that the perpetrator proves to be not some psychopath with a Dracula kink, but the real supernatural deal.

The Night Stalker forms an indisputable landmark of televisual American Gothic. With Darren McGavin playing a wisecracking, working class Van Helsing, the film imports Bram Stoker’s classic vampire narrative, reworks it and roots it in a modern urban setting. Stephen King has praised the film in his study Danse Macabre (poignantly dubbing Kolchak “more Lew Archer than Clark Kent”), and The Night Stalker can be detected as an influence on the author’ own fiction (e.g., Salem’s Lot, “The Night Flier”). This hard-boiled/horror hybrid has also proven seminal to the paranormal-investigation subgenre, most notably in the case of The X-Files.

With its fine pedigree (Richard Matheson furnished the script for producer Dan Curtis), The Night Stalker unsurprisingly became an instant hit with audiences. The film also holds up remarkably well to a 2021 viewing. Barry Atwater is a frightful, and decidedly physical, menace as the vampiric antagonist Janos Skorzeny. The film’s protracted climax, in which Kolchak searches the vampire’s Gothic household lair (where Skorzeny’s latest victim is held captive as his personal blood bank), is the quintessence of thrilling suspense.

Thanks to the success of the film, the Kolchak character would develop into a pop cultural icon, appearing in a subsequent made-for-TV movie, a short-running but long-revered TV series, and countless works of fiction. Forty-nine years later, though, it is still The Night Stalker that represents the height of Kolchak’s story-hunting, monster-encountering glory.

 

Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Frightfully Timely

An invisible scourge that originates in Asia before spreading devastation across the U.S….

Civilization brought to an abrupt standstill…

Sheltering at home to limit exposure to the dreaded threat…

Face coverings as a new way of (helping to save one’s) life…

No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rereading Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel Bird Box this weekend (in anticipation of the July 21st release of the sequel, Malorie), I was struck by just how relevant the book feels to the crisis currently gripping the country. Bird Box doesn’t deal with the spread of a terribly infectious disease per se, but Malerman’s clever variation on the post-apocalyptic novel (willful blindfolding becomes the permanent norm after the arrival of mysterious creatures whose merest glimpsing induces madness, homicidal violence and spectacular suicide in people) captures the panic and paranoia (but also the resilience and heroism) that have marked the past three-plus months. It dramatizes the need to adapt, and the struggle to survive in a world that is suddenly drastically different from the one people had grown up in (and accustomed to).

The novel affords the modern reader the opportunity to address fears (for the health and safety of one’s family, for example) that our present reality has made quite prominent. Bird Box forms a testament to the psychological import of horror fiction (make no mistake, the novel has the thoughtful extrapolation of science fiction, and all the suspense of a thriller, but is ultimately a work of horror featuring some unforgettably harrowing set-pieces). It exemplifies Stephen King’s notion (stated in the foreword to Night Shift) that “the horror story is not so different from the Welsh sineater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in–at least for a time.”

Malerman’s forthcoming novel Malorie was completed prior to the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic, but it will still be interesting to see just how much the Bird Box sequel speaks to this uneasy moment that Americans are enduring.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10. “Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9. “Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7. “Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6. “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery. The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4. “N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3. “1922” (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2. “The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1. “The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.

 

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.

 

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.