Stephen King’s The Mist  My Life in Horror

Stephen King’s The Mist  My Life in Horror

That unique flavour of cosmic, existential despair -that I wouldn’t understand as “Lovecraftian” until many, many years later- changed the state of my mind and imagination, inclining me -along with other influences- towards darker work, fiction of a more ambiguous and uncertain kind. 

It’s likely a familiar story at this point: 

A childhood holiday (either Corfu or The Canary Isles; I forget which), my own store of reading material quickly sapped dry. 

Being the child I was -insular, in love with isolation-, this couldn’t stand: If I had nothing to read, I’d drive myself insane. 

Fortunately, my Mother had her own small cache of Dean Koontz and Stephen King books, amongst them a big, black, hard-bound volume of Skeleton Crew. I recall vividly her trying to explain the concept of a story collection to me (it being the first of its kind I ever encountered). 

For reasons best left up to my childhood self,

I read the stories out of sequence, based on the relative attraction of their titles: 

The Mist thus became my first brush with Sai King outside of film and TV adaptations of his work, and amongst the very first works of written horror I ever read. 

To say it enraptured me is an understatement. More accurately, it consumed me. I don’t recall much of that holiday (though my memory for such things is disturbingly vivid). What I do recall, however, are the frightened faces gathered in the shopping mall, the Lovecraftian tendril of something alien and other-worldly protruding from beneath a partially-raised shutter. I remember alien insects with venomous bites, alien spiders that mummify their prey and the all-too-human horrors that they inspire. 

I remember a sincere sense of awful inevitability,

A horrific impetus of reality breaking down, turning in on itself. I remember being so immersed in the story as to lose entire days to it, mesmerised by the potential and possibility of the eponymous mist. 

Beyond the frisson of dread and disturbia King draws -the situation so fraught, so hopeless, it quickly becomes apparent how impossible it is for the protagonists to reconcile-, this was one of my earliest awakenings regarding my love of the monstrous and “other.” 

My prior explorations of fantasy, mythology and folklore had already precipitated the first tremors of that particular avalanche: I knew that I responded to monsters, demons, dragons, villains, far more intimately and emotively than their heroic counterparts (to me, the latter always seemed dull and hypocritical; apologists for status quos as corrupt and cruel as anything the villains had a mind to unleash). 

The Mist churned that inclination into overdrive: I became imaginatively fascinated by the eponymous phenomena; its nature, its origins, what extra-dimensional absurdities it might conceal. That it seemed to carry or give birth to monsters was the icing on the cake. I found myself obsessing on it, imagining what else it might conceal, the strange and contradictory realities it seeped from. 

I also began to learn that I enjoyed the experiences of dread and disturbia it elicited; responses many would categorise as negative, but that I came to revel in, even require, after a time. 

My only concern was the categorisation of The Mist as a wholly negative, corrosive phenomena: 

Within the story, it’s clear that it heralds an alien ecosystem that, whilst ostensibly antithetical to humanity, nevertheless functions on its own terms. The latter stages of the tale, in which the survivors drive through the grey wasteland left in its aftermath, is a kind of moribund safari, a last look at a world they don’t belong to any longer and which does not belong to them. That sense of sorrowful awe, of melancholy acceptance, struck me like a hammer-blow between the eyes; perhaps my earliest exposure in popular fiction to a tragic conclusion, where salvation is impossible (not even a concept). 

That unique flavour of cosmic, existential despair -that I wouldn’t understand as “Lovecraftian” until many, many years later- changed the state of my mind and imagination, inclining me -along with other influences- towards darker work, fiction of a more ambiguous and uncertain kind. 

And it would swell my already fulsome love of monsters beyond any bounds. 

I found myself wondering what it would be like to walk in that world, to feel the mist on my skin, taste the air of alien worlds. To encounter these strange, new beasts and, perhaps, come to understand them. 

The resonant emptiness of the conclusion, that terrible inevitability, is something I’ve loved in horror media ever since: 

The sense of knowing without being told, of having awful, awful knowledge that the protagonists share, but haven’t yet consciously acknowledged. Very little in horror media affects me so powerfully as that. There’s a post-modern despair to the concept; an expression of something reluctant but fundamental to us all existing here, at the ragged edge of history as it frays apart about us. 

What King expresses here has always been a part of me, as it has most people born since the tail-end of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s: An acknowledgement of entropy and impermanence, that systems slowly corrode around us (the phenomena escalating with every passing day). 

In The Mist, everything fails in the space of a day, in the face of cosmic phenomena the like of which we cannot account for or defend against. The Lovecraftian notion of humanity as a speck of grit in cosmological wheels is writ large throughout the story: This is not a parable in which love or innocence or virtue have any weight. There is no salvation to be had in this broken world, and the entities that invade it from within the eponymous mist lack any and all reason (and, it seems, any and all malevolence: They are merely animals, acting as animals do. The fact that they’re from spheres of being and ecosystems inimical to humanity is no more their faults than those of the human beings they variously prey on). 

This is a new reality of Darwinian indifference

Where whatever gods might exist are alien and indifferent, and those evoked by humanity are little more than hollow expressions of ancient fears and tribal ignorance. 

As a boy, I could only assimilate this on the most subconscious level, in a visceral manner not unlike the experience of nightmares (which the story no doubt inspired). It was without doubt my first brush with Lovecraftian fiction, near-enough a decade before I’d come to read the man himself. That particular species of existential nihilism is one that’s always resonated with me. Perhaps -in part- as a result of this story’s influence, such morbid frames of mind consumed me as a child, and still do to a greater or lesser degree: 

The nihilism King evokes here, the lack of faith in the flimsiness of prescribed narrative, the myths of our cultures and histories, seems so evidently true as to be beyond articles of faith. One does not require faith in order to see the decay occurring first-hand around us, to understand that the myths so beloved of our ancestors have failed us utterly. 

More than anything, that’s what The Mist serves as; an expression of endings that humanity would rather not acknowledge, even when we are living them first-hand. 

All I knew as a child coming to the story is how it made me feel; that cold, resonant hollow it planted inside of me, that, far from making me diffident and disinterested, filled me with a species of morbid energy and enthusiasm.

Following my original brush with this story, my appetite for similar swelled beyond all control or satisfaction. That black, consumptive fire has been burning since that reading, and shows no signs of waning yet. 

In context with King’s back-catalogue,

The Mist is highly unusual, in that it is entirely devoid of hope or means of salvation. Even many of his darker-tinged stories provide some resolution, some scrap of dignity or insight for its protagonists. The Mist refuses that: 

There’s nothing to be learned or revealed here. The horror is acutely devoid of metaphysics or poetry: It is simply a portrait of humanity attempting to operate in a world that has moved on and forgotten them. If there is an idea of tomorrow in this story, it is alien: A dream of a world in which we are extinct, and all of our idiot, self-destructive engines have ceased in the face of new assumptions, new ecosystems, new species of life. If there is a tomorrow, it belongs to creatures for whom stories of human hope and love and purpose are anathema. 

And, as desolate and horrific a prospect that might be for individual humanity, there is a wider, unspoken resonance to the story that suggests this might be the better outcome. 

At the point of writing (mid-1980s), King had witnessed political and economic upheavals, experienced first-hand the death of prescribed narrative and mythology in his native USA. On top of that came escalating crises in the forms of pollution, climate change and the AIDs epidemic (amongst others). The death of history was well underway, and this story is very much an expression of that concept through Lovecraftian terms: 

Not only is humanity incidental to this world-ravaging phenomena

It is self-destructing on its own tiny, animal-brained terrors and the inclinations that blossom therefrom: 

The scenes that occur in the super-market-become-last-bastion stand as a thoroughly misanthropic critique of humanity, especially when it comes under extinctionist duress: Here, human beings don’t pull together for common survival, but slowly go mad and turn on one another. The story stops short of introducing cannibalistic sub-plots, but not by much. The alien other-state slowly overtaking the world and subsuming what remains of humanity’s civilisations is antithetical, but also more consistent: An ecosystem of other-worldly stability, that, at the story’s conclusion, looks set to be the new status-quo for planet Earth. Humanity, the story claims, is over at this point: These few ragged survivors we follow are just the last remnants of that species and history. And, given how terrible we have seen them be, is that so bad an outcome? 

The story can -and has been- taken to task for this peculiar brand of nihilism:

One can read it in a highly reactionary manner, its commentary on human scapegoating self-interest not a million miles away from the authoritarian cant of fascists the world over. However, it’s also the case that the story’s literary project lies in applying Lovecraftian themes and subjects to a contemporaneous setting, and in that, the story exhibits profound fidelity to that tradition: 

Lovecraft’s nihilism is part and parcel here, resonant in every inch of the story. King, having been  a fan of Lovecraft since childhood, takes pains to pay respects to the man’s work and the themes that generally informed it. Amongst them are a particular strain of misanthropic hopelessness; a notion that even the best of us can -and will- become monsters under the right circumstances. 

Again, one could also argue that the scenes in the supermarket are not applicable to wider humanity. Rather, they are part of King’s consistent commentary on small-town USA. As in so many of his stories, King is intent on picking away at the smiling, scabbed-over masks such cultures present to the world, revealing the suppurating disease and infestation beneath.

Here, ostensibly “good,” “normal” people find themselves willing to commit collective murder on the say of a moral maniac, cleaving to anyone or anything willing to provide rationale for their situation (even when that rationale is pure lunacy).

This is King looking past the empty smiles and expressions of neighbourly togetherness to the bitter truth, the dark secrets and festering resentments such pantomimes mask. Under this duress, faced with horror and extinction, the say of a mad woman is as good as any, and better to some than the vacuous, blanket silence of the eponymous mist. 

As in most of Stephen King’s stories, the true horror is human.

The abstruse and supernatural elements merely provide the backdrop and impetus for that horror to express itself. In many respects, the politics of the story can be read as quite reactionary, in that the story insists that notions of togetherness and common cause dissolve in the face of circumstances we cannot control. Myriad examples from both history and present day events demonstrate that to be untrue: 

Under horrific circumstances such as war, natural disaster etc, most human beings revert to their most instinctively communal. This has been testified by numerous sociological and psychological studies. However, here, King is intent on commenting on the underlying hypocrises of particular sub-cultures (i.e. those in his native USA where conservatism and reactionary views flourish, which tends to be amongst those communities which are the most insular and cut off from the rest of culture). Here, small-town values are revealed as little more than window dressing, Christian morality as a mask for festering, archaic tribalism that will readily revert to Old Testament, blood-and-fire sacrifice when the chips are down. 

As an early baptism in Lovecraftian horror, it made quite an impression. 

The conclusion of the short story has always stuck with me: On a technical level, it stands as a flouting of popular prescription: We don’t find out what happens to most of the people left at the supermarket (though we understand through context and implication they are simply awaiting the inevitable). 

Likewise, as the small cast of surviving protagonists make their way across the benighted, eerily transformed landscape that was so familiar only a few days before, we are treated to a morbid safari, in which we find horror and awe comingling, almost becoming synonymous. It’s clear from the writing King has a degree of love for the strangeness and alien absurdity he paints (a quality Lovecraft himself unwittingly exemplifies). 

Yet, tainting every sight and experience is the omnipresent knowledge, the awful certainty that, at some point, the car will run out of gas, its passengers will begin to suffer from lack of food, sleep and water. There is no salvation here; the world doesn’t belong to humanity any longer. There’s only this new world, strange and inimical to humanity, which has subsumed and obliterated the old and familiar. 

That deliciously despairing resonance, the sense of emptiness and ending, is something I’ve often sought to recreate in my own work (to varying degrees of success). It obsessed me as a feeling, an experience, and obsesses me still, to the point that I actively seek similar out (but rarely find anything of the same quiet power or subtlety). 

As a child, I doubt I consciously processed how it made me feel.

I certainly couldn’t articulate it to myself in words, but I know that I relished the experience. 

Now, as an adult, one deeply versed in the Lovecraftian traditions that inspired the story, I return to it at least annually, finding myself shuddered and hollowed out all over again. There are very few stories in Stephen King’s repertoire that exercise the same power, that resonate with the same strange cocktail of associations (as well as being profound in its own right, the story reminds me of another time and place; a childhood in which I’d barely begun my Dantean descent into the circles of horror media. As such, it’s an oddly nostalgic, even sentimental experience, carrying a similar twinge of pleasure as old cartoons or comic books). 

The story’s resonance, if anything, is even more profound in the political and cultural landscapes of 2024, which finds us so culturally and ideologically divided, where so many of those polite and smiling masks have begun to slip, and the reactionary reversion to old tribalism is evident in so, so much of our discourse. Furthermore, its extinctionist elements grow more acute by the day: It is far from beyond the pale to regard the rogue meteorological phenomena as a fairly apt metaphor for climate change, and the petulant, tribal bickering it inspires as a commentary on our consistent impotence in the face of it. 

On a personal level,

it will always stand as my introduction to the work of one of horror’s most significant luminaries; a story that shaped my imagination and influenced my interests in so many abiding ways. 

More broadly, it’s of a species that we desperately need more of: One that’s willing to hold up a less-than-flattering mirror and say: Be better, or reap the consequences. 

This is Stephen King at his most starkly misanthropic: There’s very little in the story that echoes the hope and resolution one finds in its contemporaries. In that, it’s of a species of horror I find particularly appealing: One that doesn’t pretend to provide answers or solutions, but merely presents the problems we face as societies, as a species, and extrapolates to what seems an inevitable conclusion. 

George Daniel Lea 17-02-24

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  • George Daniel Lea

    George Lea is an unfixed oddity that can occasionally be sighted wandering around the UK Midlands. Queer as a very queer thing. Following the publication of his first short story collection, Strange Playgrounds and Essential Atrocities, he found a home amongst Perpetual Motion Machine Publications/Ghoulish Books stable of queer writers with his two-volume short-story collection, Born in Blood.

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