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Original Essays

Big-League Doom: Stephen King's Apocalypses

by Justin Taylor
  1. The Apocalypse Reader
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Apocalypse Reader

    Justin Taylor

I. Contractions of Industry. Christmas Bondage. Ungratefulness.

This is what happened. In the fall of 2006, the Avalon Books spring preview catalog came out. The page devoted to The Apocalypse Reader, an anthology I was editing, contained several errors, not least among them the inclusion of Stephen King's name on the list of contributors. Much to my chagrin — and despite my placing several irate phone calls and emails — this misinformation resurfaced again at publication time on the websites of internet booksellers. (Powell's, I'm happy to note, was the first to post the correct information after I sent it to them.)

The short version of the story is that during the period The Apocalypse Reader was in production, Avalon was experiencing an apocalypse of its own. It was in its death throes as a corporate entity. Almost simultaneously with my book's publication, the company completed a deal to sell itself to Perseus Books Group. Perseus immediately shuttered the Thunder's Mouth imprint and re-assigned me to something called Running Press, publisher of He Just Thinks He's Not that Into You: The Insanely Determined Girl's Guide to Getting the Man that She Wants, and The Naughty, Naughty Christmas Kit, which isn't actually a book, though there is a 32-page book included in the kit, which also includes fuzzy handcuffs and a "Sexy Santa Hat."

Even in the best of times, anthologies are at the bottom of any publisher's priority list. The Stephen King gaff happened because whoever wrote the PR copy used as their source material an author wishlist I'd drawn up early on, rather than the finalized table of contents I turned in. Given the turmoil at Avalon during the book's entire production period, I should probably be grateful that anything even got written about my book.

I'm not.

Stephen King was my first literary hero. He made me want to be a writer. His work has been of such monumental significance to me that it's difficult to put my feelings into words — though in a minute or so I'm going to try. Even his worst — or anyway my least favorite — of his works are forever ingrained in my mind. It caused me no small amount of anguish to have King erroneously affiliated with my project, and then to have to write the letters correcting that mistake.


II. Two Things I Want to be Clear About.

A few sentences back, I alluded to King's "best" and "worst" writing. The word "best" will come up again several times. The word "worst" will not. I have long felt that there is at least one good and important critical treatise to be written about Stephen King, his vast and varied body of work. This essay is not that treatise. I have come today to praise, not bury. This is a love letter.

That's the first thing.

The second thing is that I'm proud — extremely proud — of The Apocalypse Reader. It collects 34 short stories by 35 excellent authors at diverse stages in their careers, from "up and coming" to "New York Times best-seller" to "cult sensation" to "been dead since 1847." There are brand-new stories by Shelley Jackson, Lucy Corin, Matthew Derby, and more. There's an original collaboration between Gary Lutz and Deb Olin Unferth. There are uncollected stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Brian Evenson, and Dennis Cooper. There are several "classic" apocalypse tales, including rare stories by Hawthorne, Poe, H.G. Wells, and a Victorian Jewish writer named Grace Aguilar — a contemporary of Dickens whose work hasn't been published commercially in roughly 100 years.

There's more, but if you buy the book, you can explore it at your leisure, and if you're not sold yet you're probably tired of the sales pitch (though for whatever it's worth: Rick Moody, Diane Williams, Lynne Tillman, Jared Hohl, Kelly Link, Tao Lin, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.). Okay — commercial's over.


III. Zombies. Feds. A Very Special Television Event.

The first major epiphany I had after I started editing The Apocalypse Reader was that I should limit the book's scope exclusively to the short story. I love short stories. They are my favorite literary form to read and to write. I relished the opportunity to champion the form and to showcase the work of some of its strongest practitioners.

There were practical advantages to this approach. First, it gave the nascent collection a highly necessary degree of focus. Second, it allowed my editor to get a decent night's sleep for the first time since I told him I was thinking about including poetry in the book. Third, it meant I didn't have to figure out how to clip self-contained excerpts from any of the several fine Apocalypse novels I'd been considering. I wasn't sure exactly how many apocalyptic short stories King has written, but there were three that sprang immediately to mind: one from Skeleton Crew, and two from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. "The Mist" — the story from Skeleton Crew — is one of my absolute favorite pieces King has ever written, but I knew right away that it was way too long to consider for my anthology. That left me with the two from Nightmares and Dreamscapes: "The End of the Whole Mess" and "Home Delivery."

"The End of the Whole Mess" is a near-future Apocalypse story about one Howard Fornoy, brother of Bobby Fornoy, who just might be the smartest person ever to walk the earth. Bobby solves the problem of all the violence in the world when he discovers a pacifying agent in the natural water supply of an inexplicably non-violent region of Texas — the Waco region, to be precise. I don't want to give away the ending, but suffice to say that Bobby's plan to enforce world peace by distilling the pacifying agent and then dosing the globe has some unexpected consequences. The story was written and published years before the FBI/Branch Davidian standoff forever affiliated Waco's name with religious zealotry and government violence. For me, the glaring anachronism of its premise only adds to the macabre thrill of what's already a pretty great story: pulpy and quick-paced, scary and weirdly funny like a grinning skull. It's a story that doesn't make any promises it can't keep, and makes good on everything it promises.

"Home Delivery" focuses on Maddie Pace, born and raised on Little Tall Island (one of several fictional Maine locales where King has set multiple stories) but now living on nearby Gennesault Island, just Jenny to the locals. Maddie is the widow of Jack, a lobster fisherman recently lost at sea. Also, she's pregnant. Also, subsequent to the appearance of Star Wormood in outer space just above the hole in the ozone layer, the dead have begun to rise from their graves. "Home Delivery" is gruesome and powerful, a resonant and affecting shocker with a strong — if somewhat limited — feminist message at its heart. It is one of many King stories wherein a woman who has spent her life dominated and abused by men discovers a righteous strength she never knew she had, and then uses that strength to kick some ass. It is also a very good story about zombies.

That summer, the TNT cable network broadcast a miniseries adapted from several of the tales in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I knew then that I was out of luck. I knew that the miniseries would put the 13-year-old collection back in the spotlight. There might be a new paperback edition with a film-still for the cover; surely the reprint fees would spike. A new edition might even mean a new contract such that even if I had been able to get in touch with King directly and beg him for indulgence — he happens to have an excellent reputation as a champion of the literary little guy — there might have been little he could have done if he'd wanted to.


IV. The Mist. Lovecraft. Conclusion.

"The Mist," the story that opens the Skeleton Crew collection, is actually a short novel. This is not surprising considering that this collection of twenty stories (and two poems!) is longer than some people's collected works.

David Drayton and his son Billy are trapped — along with about 70 other people — in a supermarket when a mysterious mist rolls in over their rural Maine town. Lurking in that mist are a panoply of blood-thirsty monsters the likes of which have never been seen before.

King is a writer always glad to be inspired. He wears his influences and inspirations on his sleeve, usually in the form of a name-check, right there in the story, which I find a charmingly self-conscious gesture given that the borrowing itself is already a form of homage. In "The Mist," David Drayton describes something he sees as being like "one of the minor creatures in a Bosch painting." Later on, after he nails a spider-like creature with a pinchbar, he figures out that "they were no Lovecraftian horrors with immortal life but only organic creatures with their own vulnerabilities."

Is not the urge to insist on the difference between two things the surest sign of their similarity? The corporeality of the monsters (plus one very un-Lovecraftian sex scene) notwithstanding, "The Mist" can be read as one giant tribute to Lovecraft, who, it's worth pointing out, is in The Apocalypse Reader. He happens to be another one of my favorite writers, and it is far from a coincidence that I discovered his work when I read Stephen King's nonfiction study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre.

The monsters in King's story are indeed more concrete, more physically there, than the average mind-devouring, symbolism-freighted Lovecraft creature, but there is a strong and obvious kinship of circumstance, if not of aspect. Several explanations for the presence of the mist are posited, but no definitive answer is ever obtained. The best tentative explanation involves a secret government project gone awry, and this raises at least as many questions as it answers. The basic notion of man meddling with forces he ought not meddle with is Lovecraftian, thematically as well as tonally. Also Lovecraftian is the notion that the constitutive element of horror is not the monstrous thing itself, but rather the opacity of its origin and its purpose. The clear delineation between good and evil is certainly reminiscent of Lovecraft too, though here King is drawing on another of his favorite sources of inspiration: the B-grade horror flick. As King puts it in the endnotes to the collection: "you're supposed to see this one in black-and-white, with your arm around your girl's shoulders (or your guy's), and a big speaker stuck in the window."

But a story with starkly drawn contrasts and little (or no) gray area need hardly be one-dimensional. Scary as the monsters are, they are basically wild animals out of their natural habitat. They pose a mortal danger, but they can hardly be accused of having malicious intent. They are no more morally or intellectually culpable for their actions than a bear run amok at a campsite or the occasional mountain lion that turns up in a suburb. True evil in "The Mist" wears a human face. As the hours turn to days, the increasingly distraught supermarket shoppers begin to factionalize, leaders emerge, and before too long there's as clear a threat of violence within the relative sanctum of the market as without.

A true maximalist, one of King's greatest gifts is for crowd scenes. He can present a large group of people and then show in a convincing way how and why those groups either join together or break down. Though his preference is for the broad stroke rather than the deep psychological portrait (though he's more than capable of the latter when he feels like it), he understands the way people think and behave — our weird peccadilloes and prejudices, the behavioral tics and secret fears we allow ourselves to be crippled by or else have to fight to overcome. Mrs. Carmody, a cartoonishly repellant old woman in a canary-yellow pantsuit, thinks the creatures in the mist are Heaven-sent, a sort of blanket punishment for whatever Mrs. Carmody thinks that God thinks people have done wrong lately, which is pretty much everything. There's no subtlety to her fire-and-brimstone rants about judgment day and atonement, as well there shouldn't be. It is her insidious relentlessness that wears her audience down. Her slow-but-steady accumulation of followers effects a change in how seriously the main characters have to take her. Her message never becomes credible, but the threat she poses eventually does.

Like all King's best work, "The Mist" is delivered in direct, unadorned prose that doesn't want to mediate your experience so much as allow you to forget that there is anything between you and the story. Unlike Lovecraft, whose painfully self-conscious efforts to write capital-L Literature seem to succeed against the author's own instincts (and sometimes don't succeed at all), King's aggressive demotic functions like a movie screen, or better yet: the projector. Also unlike Lovecraft — an anti-democratic racist xenophobe who thought sex was gross — King's work is informed by an earthy politics of inclusion; a backyard barbecue materialism that hasn't forgotten its working-class roots, no matter how big the backyard has gotten over the years. Maybe this is why he's so good with crowds and groups. If so, I think it also explains why his work has stayed so popular — and so powerful — for so long. Certainly, it's one of my favorite things about his writing. He is a spectacular creator — and destroyer — of entire worlds.

÷ ÷ ÷

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Dennis Cooper's Userlands, BookSlut, and elsewhere online and in print. His website is spacer
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