My seventh-grade English teacher, one of the most brilliant teachers in all my education, taught one of the most chilling lessons I’ve ever had.
We were going to study “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a famous Twilight Zone episode. Because this episode presumably had much to do with monsters, my teacher asked us students to draw what we thought the monsters looked like. Being highly imaginative twelve-year-olds, we came up with everything from aliens to under-the-bed monsters with horns and fur.
But then, after reading the episode script, we came to learn that the monsters that came to Maple Street were not actual monsters, like from under our beds or in our closets.
Rather, the real monsters on Maple Street were the residents of Maple Street. Our young minds were blown to find out that regular people could be just as monstrous as anything our imaginations could conjure.
I remembered that lesson as I read Stephen King’s The Mist.
After a severe summer thunderstorm hits Bridgton, Maine, several residents, including artist David Drayton, his five-year-old son Billy, and their neighbor Brent Norton, go to the Federal Foods market to stock up on supplies. But a mysterious mist soon rolls in, the town whistle starts to wail, and a man runs into the store yelling that the mist took somebody. It soon becomes apparent that there are monsters hiding in the mist, waiting to strike. David and the other shoppers find themselves trapped in the store, but they soon find that the monsters outside are not the only monsters they’ll deal with…
Stephen King’s works are usually enjoyable to me, and The Mist is no exception. The dread and uncertainty start from the first word and linger until the last. That might be a cliche sentiment about King, but you know that something is lurking around every page, and you’re just waiting for the next penny to drop.
The Mist is creature horror, but the scares come more from how people react to the creatures. Sure, the creatures that come out of the mist are scary (they feel like something out of Lovecraft’s nightmares), but it’s more how the survivors try to, well, survive, that inspires dread.
I’ve mentioned before how creepy religious people intrigue me, and the character Mrs. Carmody is another example. She starts out as the pariah of the survivors, annoying everyone with her outrageous proclamations about the mist. But gradually, as the survivors lose hope, they lean further into her until she has almost created her own cult. David, our narrator, notices how she seems to thrive in this atmosphere of tension and fear, and that she seems to almost be waiting for a chance like this. Like Margaret White from Carrie, some people might not be able to take her seriously, but Mrs. Carmody is probably more chilling since she convinces an otherwise sane group of people to demand a blood sacrifice.
I am conflicted about how I feel about David, though.
While trapped in the store, David meets Amanda, a younger woman who he becomes physically attracted to. Their sexual tension builds until they finally sleep together. While David is somewhat conflicted about the act, and Amanda assures him that it was just a one-time hook-up, I wish David would feel more troubled about it. I can see how a hook-up might be a welcome reprieve during an apocalyptic event, but I would feel like the worst person in the world cheating on my boyfriend.
And hey, maybe there are other priorities in an apocalypse besides feeling sorry for adultery, but still.
As for the monsters, the way they writhe and twist through the mist, almost like the two entities are moving together to wreak havoc, is chilling. Each scene of someone walking into the mist to investigate, only to immediately be eaten alive or simply never returning, leaves a tiny pit in your stomach. It’s hinted that the monsters might have come from a government experiment that accidentally opened an inter-dimensional portal, but a full explanation, especially as to how far the monsters have spread across the country, is never given.
I distinctly remember a scene where a group decides to venture outside, and the leader carries a length of rope with them to let the others know how far they’ve gone into the mist. As the rope goes farther and farther outside, you’re just waiting for the rope to jerk and have things get further out of control.
Many people regard The Mist as a horror classic, and I don’t think they’re far off the mark. It’s a great book for that tender spot between the end of summer and the start of the spooky season—like today, the last day of August. Though I guess it’s just a great King read for his typical brand of supernatural fright.