Monday, September 22, 2008

Killing the "nice guy" - Skeleton Crew: The Mist

It was interesting to read some of Stephen King's older short stories. For one thing, you got a glimpse of his style back in the mid 80's, when King was literally the King of horror. The stories in "Skeleton Crew" range from the 70's and go right up to 1985, when the book was first published. It contains an interesting collection of stories including the reliable monster under the bed tales, a twisted sci-fi romp, a meditation on death and a couple of poems. The mix of stories is solid and keeps you interested in seeing where he's going to go next.

One story in particular made me laugh, only because it was featured in a "Mystery Science Theater" film. It's the tale of a toy monkey that causes death each time he clashes his cymbals. King's story is pretty good, but the movie version is hilarious, and not on purpose. The movie was called "Merlin's Mystical Shop of Magical Wonders" and the monkey story is only part of the fun found within. I found a few of the tales in Skeleton Crew" to feel a bit stretched ("Gramma" feeling way too long for it's simple story), but I could also see hints of King's less horrific side (something that he let shine in his later work and in "Different Seasons").

Probably the best story of the bunch was the first, a novella called "The Mist". Recently this story was made into a feature film, and I can see its appeal. (Just warning you, there are going to be some serious spoilers here). The story starts with a family of three (Mom, Dad and son) enjoying a day in their house by the lake. Dad and son go for a quick trip to the market, and see some strange mist rolling across the lake as they leave. Upon reaching the store, the mist catches up and suddenly it becomes very obvious that the mist has brought something with it. Anyone venturing outside into the mist is immediately set upon by horrible creatures who want to do nothing more but messily devour humans. Dad and son are trapped in the supermarket with several other people. Panic sets in. Can they escape and if they do, is there any way out of the mist?

King does a great job of setting up our family, and putting the main characters into danger. The threat is real, random and vicious. The monsters can't be reasoned with, and are nearly invincible (it reminded me quite a bit of "Jurassic Park" in that respect). In addition to the creatures outside, there is simmering tension within. A highly unstable woman is convinced that the only way to stop the mist is to engage in human sacrifice. Yeah, real nice lady. It becomes important for the father and son to leave before the supermarket becomes a bloodbath. Allied with our main characters is a lowly checkout clerk named Ollie Weeks.

King goes out of his way to make us like Weeks. He is a nice enough guy (especially compared to the manager of the supermarket), but is described as a bit of a softy. When things start to go downhill, Weeks steps up. He is the voice of reason in the supermarket. He calms people down and gets everyone thinking clearly. He's not the leader of the group, but he offers advice and is rarely proven wrong. In addition it turns out that Weeks is the best shot of the group, and ends up with the only pistol the people in the market have access to. The little pudgy man becomes the key defender and hero of the group.

In a way it's obvious that Weeks has to go down. This is a horror story after all, and you can't have a knight in shining armor in a horror story: the readers won't feel any fear. King takes out some minor characters in quick and brutal ways, so we begin to doubt Weeks' role. But when he kills a creature with a well-placed shot, we breathe a sigh of relief. Even when the crazy woman has gathered disciples to her and is hunting down the little boy for their sacrifice it is Weeks to does what no one else can - he kills the ranting woman with the pistol. He saves the leads, but in that moment he dooms himself. He's killed another human, just like the monsters outside. On the flip side, the crazy woman was just as dangerous as the monsters, and so it fits that Weeks is able to stop both of them.

A small group makes a run for the lead character's car. They are attacked on the way and it's brutal. Weeks makes it to the car door and is very suddenly and swiftly killed. It happens so quickly that I found myself re-reading the sentence again. In a way it's King showing two things. First, he doesn't want Weeks to suffer, so his death is quick and final. Second, he wants to up the danger for our leads. Weeks is the brave knight and with him gone, do the heroes have a chance? The story ends on an ambiguous note, with the mist already covering much of Maine and our group still driving south hoping to find an end to it and a reprieve from the monsters.

Does the set up, execution and death of Ollie Weeks seem a bit technical? It does, but the story is told in such a way that you don't really notice it, and even if you do, it's still effective. I liked Weeks quite a bit and felt bad enough about his sudden death to go back and reread that sentence. It was only from the technical point of view that I was able to see his place in the narrative. In the depths of the story he works perfectly and if I had read the story in one sitting (possible for a faster reader than me), I'm guessing it works great.

A character like this is very important in horror fiction, or anywhere where thrills and suspense need to be generated. The key is to make the character believable, likable and set them up as an innocent, or heroic figure. Then at a key moment, you kill them off. If you do this right, the reader is going to gasp and feel "If the writer can kill off the 'nice guy', what hope the leads have?" Then you've got them where you want them.

Can you think of any other effective 'nice guy' characters? What did you think of "The Mist" in either the novel or movie form? Have you read an a non-effective use of the 'nice guy'? Why didn't it work?

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