(This post is a coda to the previous one about Stephen King stories that most affected me. This post features the same list but is about the nature of fear in each of these stories. This post is dedicated to:
AKA: By Hook Or By Book)
I’m fascinated by the subject of fear. What am I afraid of? Why am I afraid of it? What is it about this particular movie, or that story, that strikes a chord in me but maybe no one else? I think fear is something deeply personal and unique to the individual. What terrifies me is not going to do the same for you, although all our fear is really the same fear.
What scares you, may manifest as that something YOU haven’t personally experienced, or place you’ve never been, or heard of, and can’t imagine going to. Although, really, it’s all the same place.
I live in a relatively sheltered world. I always have. I’m well loved by my family and for the most part, the people in my orbit, have not been unreliable or monstrous. Most of the truly horrific things that have happened to women I know, have never happened to me. Other people’s emotional troubles don’t scare me and I don’t read those types of stories because I’ve been in those spaces. Those spaces hold no fear for me. I’ve already taken the tour, seen the layout, even rented for a while.
I think the reason why these particular stories and novels strike such a chord with me, is the idea of a my rather undramatic existence being broadsided by the inexplicablle, or the inevitable. I’m a rational person who looks for the explanations of things. It’s one thing to worry about that girl snubbing me at the Lane Bryant, but what if it’s some thing that has no earthly business being in a suburban shopping mall. And why is it pretending to be a sales clerk?
Fear is personal. Like The Thing, it manifests as something unique to the individual. For some people it takes the form of loss of a child. For others it’s loss of self. But for some of us, it takes a more direct approach. This is the fear of dying.
The Sun Dog:
I spoke abut this story’s relevance to me in an earlier Stephen King post here:
Kevin receives a Polaroid camera for his birthday, that seemingly takes the same photograph over and over, an image of a large Black Dog. It’s not an accident that the dog is black. In mythology, the Black Dog, Black Shuck or Hellhound, is often a portent of death. King just makes all this literal. The dog isn’t just a portent of Death. It is actually Death. What makes this story especially terrifying, is this malevolent entity is, clearly and specifically, stalking Kevin. Because fear is personal. One could argue that the dog represents Kevin’sfear of dying, or the loss of his childhood, or that the reason the dog appeared is because he’s at the crossroads of maturity and innocence…blah, blah, blah. That’s okay, if you wanna get deep, but sometimes a steak is just a steak.
When the dog catches him, everyone and everything Kevin loves will die.
This story can be found in the anthology Four Past Midnight.
In my opinion, 1408 is one of the most terrifying short stories ever written. 1408 is about dying, brutally, horribly, knowing that it’s coming and not knowing why or how. When Gerald Olin gives Mike Enslin a complete rundown of just how many people have died in room 1408, that’s when the chills begin. That he memorized the sheer number of deaths, and how they occurred, speaks to just how much he fears that room. Especially when he also states that hotels do not like to keep empty rooms. The fear reaches its peak, when you realize that 1408 is not haunted in the traditional sense. In fact, the room isn’t haunted at all. It is a trap, that looks like a room. This is a recurring theme in Kings fiction, as well.
If you’re one of those people who loves to list, name, catalog and alphabetize, then this story will either have you biting your knuckles in suspense, or mad as a wet hen, because nothing is spelled out for you.
King has a knack for imagining the inexplicable. I prefer the short stories because there’s a wealth of details that make you care, in a very short time, about its characters and no explanation for what happens to them or why.
The movie is not this story, however. You will be disappointed, so watch the movie first.
This story can be found in the anthology, Everything’s Eventual.
One of the first Short stories I’d ever read by King. I was maybe twelve or fourteen and it was King’s first anthology, titled Night Shift. It’s a simple story about a man who drinks some bad beer and begins to change into something. Told from the point of view of his terrified son, it takes on another dimension of horror entirely. Once again, as in The Shining, there’s the transformation of a parental figure into something malevolent, dangerous and unreliable. A lot of King’s stories consist of such elements. The trustworthy adult, item, or event, that goes horribly wrong, after which order may, or may not, be restored.
This is the entire premise of The Stand.
One of the standout chills, in Gray Matter, isnt about the actual monster, but a tale within a tale, of a man who comes across a giant spider in the sewers. Spiders, and sentient goop that eats people, are definitely my “things”. My personal manifestations of death often take the form of monsters.
There’s a Gray Matter short film available on YouTube. The story is available in the anthology, Night Shift.
Sometimes being scared is just fun. Sometimes people just want to run up to that sleeping bear and poke it, or double dare to go into the neighborhood haunted house. With stories like The Mist, you get to experience the feeling of danger, without actually being in danger. With horror stories you get to walk right up to death, look it in the eye and run away.
Once again, though, it’s the humans who are the real monsters. Mrs. Carmody is as much a manifestation of death as the creatures in the mist. The death of reason, of sanity, of a mind that has completely surrendered to irrationality. She’s the sort of person people dismiss or make fun of, but drop her into an intense event, where she appears to have answers, and you will produce a monster.
The Mist is a perfect example of putting twenty people in a room with death, and getting ten different reactions. You have the deniers, what is called “The Flat Earth Society; people who refuse to believe that anything bad is happening. They’re not going to die. They go into the mist and are promptly eaten. Some people react with the bluster of toxic masculinity, some of them run away mentally or physically. Some of them try appeasement to alleviate their fear, including the idea of human sacrifice. Is this not some of the twelve stages of grief?
There are actual monsters in this story. All of them huge, all of them dangerous and disgusting. My favorite manifestation, of course, is The Leviathan, a monster so awe-some, it might as well be a god.
This is a story I often think about. (Usually when I’m at the grocery store.) I look around at the people shopping and wonder which people will try to bargain, which will run away, which ones will try to fight. And which coping mechanism will I choose? I like to believe I’d fall into David Draytons crew, but who knows?
Fear Changes Everything.
The movie was beautifully and faithfully realized by Frank Darabont in 2007. (Mr. Darabont is incapable of making a bad King movie.) The story is available in Skeleton Crew.
The first time I saw Toy Story I was really creeped out by the Army men and this story is why. As a child, who hasn’t imagined their toys coming to life and having adventures? Battleground is the evil, Anti-Toy Story, about a hitman who kills a toymaker, (Why?) and gets a special package delivered to his Penthouse, that contains real, live, Army men, who proceed to kick his ass all over his apartment, even though Renshaw fights valiantly. One manifestation of death fighting another, and losing. I remember when I first started reading the story. I remember thinking it would be fun, and it was.
Until I ran into one of those personal fears, we talked about earlier. It’s all fun and games, until the manifestation starts to resemble someone you know.
I grew up during the Cold War and had recurring, horrifying dreams of dying by fire. Any of you who understand that era, and read Battleground, will understand why the ending seriously threw me. Those of you too young to remember that era, Google “Cold War” and “MAD” then go read the story. In a Stephen King story, anything can be a manifestation of death.
This story was faithfully filmed for the television version of the Nightmares and Dreamscapes anthology, and starred William Hurt, as Renshaw. Those of you old enough to remember Karen Black’s Trilogy of Terror, will be heavily reminded of Richard Matheson’s short story, Prey, from that movie, (Go see it! It’s on Youtube.) and if you look really close, you can see a special object in Renshaw’s personal collection.
After that, go read the sequel to Prey, titled Quarry by Joe Lansdale.
I just re-read this story. I probably shouldn’t have done that at 3AM, but sometimes I’m not too smart about such things and it took some time to go back to sleep, but that’s okay. One of the themes that often crop up in a King story is the malignancy of inanimate things. A something that has personally chosen to kill just you. From Chattery Teeth, to The Monkey, to Trucks, King has a knack for making us think a little more deeply about the objects we use everyday. How the unexpected and unexplained can happen in the most innocuous situations.
A nondescript Station wagon pulls up to a deserted, highway rest stop and proceeds to eat any human beings that come close to it. King takes a basic premise, something we’ve all done at some point, and makes us think twice about it. Who hasn’t been the Good Samaritan, who stops to help some distressed driver? Hell ,even I’ve done it. But in King’s world, being good does not save you. The monster in this story preys on our desire to help others, to do good deeds, to be good people.
When it rains, it rains on the Just and Unjust alike. -Matthew 5:45
The Road Virus Heads North:
Who hasn’t had that dream where something is,relentlessly stalking you and there’s no escape? King is very good at writing variations on this theme. Like Keven Deleven, in The Sun Dog, you have a someone who finds an object with a malevolent being attached, which seems to exist for the joy of killing them, specifically. In the Road Virus, the killer is, like the Terminator, like The Black Dog, yet another unrelenting version of Death.
Richard Kinnell is a horror writer who finds a painting, with a sordid history, that greatly appeals to him. As he becomes increasingly disturbed by it, and after several attempts to rid himself of the painting , he realizes that the car in the painting, driven by The Road Virus, is stopping at all the places he visited after its purchase, and murdering the people he came in contact with. The horror here isn’t just that The Road Virus means death for Kinnell, but for anyone who wanders into Kinnell’s orbit. In King’s universe, being innocent can’t save you, either.
Are you beginning to sense an overall theme here? The relentless, unstoppable, inevitable unknown, is one of the deepest most primal fears of mankind. Nearly every story of fear is about the inevitability of death and almost no one has written more successful variations on it, than King.
The inevitability of death is the reason mobsters threaten families, wives get fridged, and children get kidnapped in book after book, and movie after movie. Humans have crafted entire fictional industries around the flight or fight reflex, the idea of fighting death, running away from death, or bargaining with death.
Every Action movie where the world gets saved by the heroes, who kicked death’s ass, every Thriller in which the manifestaion gets defeated by “The Final Girl”, its Jaws, The Terminator, Jason, Freddy, Darth Vader, its Mrs. Car out. Every monster is just another manifestation of the inevitable, only in real life, the monster always wins because nobody gets out of here alive. How do you process that?
Its only in fiction that we get to win. To alleviate the terror of knowing we won’t.
This is why I read King.
In part three, I specifically discuss, why I’m scared of The Man In The Black Suit.