An American Gothic Nightmare: Stephen King’s The Mist

This is a guest post by Yaroslav Marichev.

*Trigger warning: some parts of this essay analyse historical themes of racism, religious abuse and misogyny in American literature. We also recommend that younger readers under the age of 16 not read this essay, unless they are comfortable with exploring such social issues which they may have personally experienced themselves. 

‘To understand American Literature, and indeed America, one must understand the Gothic, which is the imaginative expression of the fears and forbidden desires of Americans’

Charles L. Crow, History of the Gothic.  American Gothic (2009).

The United States is full to the brim with political, social, and thus literary potential for writers of the Gothic mode, and particularly as a Puritan experiment which has, over the course of several centuries, laid a foundation to a genre which literature experts denote as the American Gothic. Noted scholar of American literature, Dr Charles L. Crow, points out in his 2009 treatise on the American Gothic that what we in the post-Civil Rights era now consider to have been abhorrent human rights abuses in the earlier days of the American Republic, assumed the role of many hallmarks of the European Gothic tradition not found in the New World (2009:2-20). Such somewhat less complex motifs of despair and horror in the European Gothic included but were not limited to: the abandoned castle, restless ghosts, and patriarchal aristocracy of the kind embodied in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In a physically untouched North American geographical landscape, void of the quintessential European Gothic settings such as abandoned castles, the essential Gothic motifs of despair and hopelessness thus become instead based on unique forms of American injustices, hopelessness, and suffering. Slavery, religious despotism, mob violence, and other forms of uniquely American human suffering manifested themselves as defining allegories of the American Gothic traditions, seeking to provide a voice to the forgotten minorities of Pax Americana

In the 20th century, genre-defining writers of the American Gothic have included the acclaimed postmodernist narrator Stephen King – a New England writer following in the horrific footsteps of Lovecraft’s Dagon, sweetly embracing the subversive techniques of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and completely divulging altogether from the opal and magnificence of Fitzgerald’s aristocratic magnum opus visions in The Great Gatsby. The works of King and other writers of his fashion are often overlooked. Colloquial, obtuse, popular; these are all the ascriptions assigned to King and similar writers without so much as a second glance. This essay will aim to overlook such criticisms and focus on analysing one of King’s lesser known works first published as part of the Dark Forces anthology of short stories: the 1980 horror story The Mist. The Mist can certainly be considered as the archetype of the postmodern American Gothic novel, and therefore, it is as much a piece of the supposed Gothic anti-cannon as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

The opportunities for interpretation of The Mist are endless. Its premise: a group of seemingly ordinary Americans in the small New England town of Bridgeport, Maine, find themselves trapped in their local supermarket after a bizarre and mysterious mist suddenly appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The situation is further compounded when it is revealed (via gory lovecraftian scenes involving much blood and screaming) that the eponymous mist contains hidden elements within which are fatal for humans. The reaction of the townspeople to this alarming discovery is myriad: in true Gothic Bible fashion, some form a Hebrew Bible-style cult, convinced that the apocalypse has descended upon them. Others simply develop psychosis or catatonia, with the constant echoing of howls of afflicted townspeople in the supermarket during the nights eerily paralleling the appearance of nocturnal spectral visitors in Brontë’s Heathcliff Manor. Over the course of the novella, protagonist and narrator David Drayton gradually reveals to the reader the length of the horrifyingly Lovecraftian and violent reality which the townspeople trapped in the supermarket face, in a manner of true subversive American Gothic horror which would shock even Lovecraft or indeed General Robert E. Lee himself. 

Lovecraftian horror: a critical component of the postmodern Gothic? 

While at first reading the characterization of extra-dimensional beings and ‘spider-lobsters’ the size of a dog in The Mist may at best seem like the fantastical ramblings of a low-budget horror film script writer, deeper contemplation and reflection leads the reader to the conclusion that King is an avid Lovecraftian. Lovecraftian horror, though at times extremely crude, is by no means a quickly-conceptualised and unintelligent genre. This particular subgenre of horror had been pioneered by the Rhode Island-born H.P. Lovecraft in the early 1920s. Lovecraftianism is essentially a horror genre which focuses on scientific, cosmic, or extraterrestrial forms of horror, as opposed to the commonly seen supernatural-based horror in early European Gothic. Lovecraft’s rise throughout the 20th century developed parallel to increasing redundancy of supernatural or paranormal horror. Such themes would inevitably experience a negative relationship with a time characterised by the advance of scientific innovations as well as increasing secularism and even atheism. In this sense, with supernatural and paranormal imagery rooted in a pre-industrial, long-forgotten European Gothic past, we can consider the Lovecraftian element in The Mist to be a natural evolution of the supernatural horror found in earlier Gothic cannon. Thus, the Lovecraftian element of scientific-based horror is what we in The Mist now find to be a critical component of the postmodern American Gothic, and which we will continue to find in the postmodern Gothic of the remainder of the 21st century, and possibly beyond. 

Although the Gothic and Lovecraftian horror are inherently opposed insofar as the Gothic is an extension of the Romantic movement while Lovecraftian horror is exceedingly anti-human, there is some interplay between the two, and King has demonstrated this by blending the two genres in The Mist. Among some obvious common themes which unite Lovecraftian horror with the Gothic genre include themes of horror and dread, which Lovecraftian horror evidently develops further on onto the ultimate Darwinian triumph of evil over good. While the purpose of this essay is not to launch a debate into whether or not humans are inherently evil, it is safe to say that Lovecraftian horror is not a genre with happy endings. There is possibly no greater example of the typical Lovecraftian conclusion than that found in the final few paragraphs of The Mist, which sees Drayton and his son driving forward into a apocalyptic mist-covered and monster-filled New England, with nothing more for sustenance than a tank of petrol and a fragile faith in finding sanctuary. 

The Gothic literary legacies of the year of witchcraft

A case in point, Crow identifies religiously-inspired moral panic and mob justice as one of the oldest inspirations for ‘Gothic counter-narrative’ (2009:161) in American literature, dating back to the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the resultant execution of nineteen men and women for the crime of sorcery (2009, p.2-20). Apart from having discredited the notion that the regressively impartial binding of judicial powers and distinct lack of secularism in the trial’s legal mechanisms was a uniquely European trait, the trial had exposed some deep cracks in early American society. Not to mention having resulted in the painful deaths of all those innocent men and women. The aftermath of Salem, Crow (2009:22) argues, is that the witchcraft panic has since then gone on to be one of the defining points and inspiration for a plethora of American writers; ranging from Lovecraft to the acclaimed Gothic novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of such canon as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables

Even today, the deluded and hysterical narrative of unseen, conjectural evils threatening to disrupt the public order, ‘hidden beneath the surface of comfortable American life’, informs countless aspects of extant American culture and society (Crow 2009:22). The moral of this narrative then leads to increasingly relevant questions for our current time – such as, ‘are there any aspects of the 21st century American justice system which resemble the witch trials at Salem in 1692?’. Sorcery is ultimately a pseudoscience and a religiously-informed pseudo-crime. Indeed, in the 21st century, there is no similar legal crime of ‘witchcraft’ in America or anywhere else in the secular world. There is no doubt that the blatant miscarriage of justice that the early settlers of Salem had witnessed in 1692 was an early example of the potential for religious abuse, moral panic, and oppresive mob justice in American society. Any seasoned reader or scholar of the American Gothic will instantly recognize the full extent of how these themes are allegorised in Mrs Carmody’s rise to power as leader of the ramshackle supermarket cult and her disposition toward Biblically-informed vigilante justice.

What is striking about Mrs Carmody is the fact that she is not a mere figment of King’s imagination, yet another purposeless image in yet another purposeless popular novel, but rather a tool of his greater purpose of ‘Gothic counter-narrative’ (Crow 2009:161) to subvert authoritarian religious and political complexes considered sacred by many American citizens. Mrs Carmody’s ability to mobilize the townspeople to attempt to lynch David and his son and to ‘Get his whore too!’ (p. 175), as a punishment for attempting to escape the supermarket is an example of ‘the abuse of knowledge and authority’ (Crow 2009:4) which firmly establishes King’s position in the same Gothic tradition as earlier and more established American writers. As the reader realises through the lens of Drayton’s first person point of view, the townspeople have suffered from a cataclysmic societal breakdown, a sort of collective psychosis, which has understandably paralleled the development of events in their physical realm. Desperate, psychotic, ‘swimming down to a place most of us leave when we get out of diapers’ (p.138), this is a group of people willing to believe anything, many of them of elderly or adolescent age. A direct reference to Mary Shelly’s Gothic-opus Frankenstein and the classical Gothic is observed within Drayton’s frantic comparison of Mrs Carmody to the bride of Frankenstein. Such a reference would be classified as merely coincidental were it not for the deeper currents embodied through the characterisation of Mrs Carmody.

Gothic Bible in The Mist

Gothic Bible, or Biblical Gothic, refers to instances of interlinkage between Gothic and Biblical literature, and is an emergent field of research in academia. One of the most significant allusions with the characterization of Mrs Carmody is the allegorical use of religion to justify despotism and mob violence. Throughout all periods of American history, religion has had a history of the conscious and subconscious oppression of marginal groups in society, binding it timelessly to the ‘abuse of knowledge and authority’ (Crow 2009:4) found in the American Gothic and the wider genre of Romanticism. Such abuses, in keeping with Crow’s assertions of the legacies of the year of witchcraft, date back to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. As Drayton chronicles, Mrs Carmody transmutes from a somewhat innocent character, a simple but eccentric village outcast, to the sinister and despotic leader of a religious cult, evoking such buried memories in collective consciousness as visions of Marshall Applewhite on a VHS screen or the late Reverend Jim Jones. 

As the increasingly surreal events develop, Mrs Carmody manages to convince increasing numbers of the townspeople in the supermarket, who are evidently undergoing a collective psychotic breakdown due to the bizarre and terrifying events, that the mist is a punishment of divine origin. Astonishingly, Mrs Carmody tirades that it is in the best interest of the townspeople to appease this vengeful deity through the guidance of herself, at which point the mist will disappear and their lives will be saved. We can thus come to the conclusion that Mrs Carmody personifies the distinctly New England Puritan religious abuses in which New England writers (such as King himself) have historically sought to expose (Crow 2011:5) and which were best embodied by the tragedy at Salem in 1692. Macrocosmically, Carmody represents not just Puritan New England but metaphorically speaks to any kind of the use of religion to manipulate society’s fears and stoke panic in an American context. 

The sort of religious abuse binding the fictional Mrs Carmody and the exceedingly non-fictional Salem Witch Trial is essentially of timeless essence. As a key theme in the American Gothic, it is a stark example of the interplay between the Gothic and Biblical modes. King reminds us through the allegory of Mrs Carmody that such religious abuse has informed and influenced countless aspects of contemporary American society. Mrs Carmody is a deeper representation of something far more visceral than conventional horror techniques: religious abuse and oppressive mob mentality, embedded deep within both the historical and the contemporary American landscape. Like the ‘witches’ of Salem, generations of Americans have suffered under such often religious or Biblically-informed abuses, and thus have their folk writers such as King documented their struggles so, in the medium of the American Gothic chef d’oeuvre.

Conclusions

In conclusion, The Mist is inevitably, maybe unwillingly, a critical canon text of the written tradition and genre of the American Gothic as it continues to be recorded in the postmodern era and the early decades of the 21st century. As the writer of a subversive novella that develops the weaving and interconnecting of Biblical, Gothic, and Lovecraftian modes within a postmodern American time and setting, we can safely say that Stephen King is by no means an obtuse author. King is a defining writer of our consumerist and paranoid times (and for many of us, our childhoods), a profound writer that will be remembered as of our time, and a beam of literary and intellectual light in an otherwise dark and Gothic 21st century political, economical, and societal North American wilderness. 


Bibliography

Crow, CL. (2009). History of the Gothic. American Gothic. Cardiff, United Kingdom: University of Wales Press. Quotation from the start of the essay is taken from the back cover of the book. 

King, S., (2007). Skeleton Crew. Paperback edition. London, United Kingdom: Hodder & Stoughton. 

The image used in this essay was photographed by the author.

About the author

Yaroslav Marichev is an undergraduate student with a research interest in American Gothic and Asian Postcolonial Gothic literature, as well as a personal interest in Nordic Noir, Avant-Garde film, and Brutalist architecture. He also has a professional background in web content creation, digital marketing, and SEO-based copywriting.

@SheffieldGothic