Oh, the horror: Stephen King’s THE MIST; WORLD WAR Z; and more

In honor of the release of HELLWORLD, here’s a quick look at some of my favorite horror out there. Enjoy!

The Mist by Stephen King

No discussion of Stephen King’s The Mist would be complete without an aside about the differences between the novella and the movie. I’ve waffled on this one, to some degree. I love the ending to the novel. It’s a theme King has used before, most notably in Shawshank, and it’s the one I most often write about myself.

The 2007 Frank Darabont movie took the original theme and, in my humble opinion, fucking decimated it. Just spread ‘em and took one giant enormous fucking shit on the whole thing, and I was just as pissed when I first saw it as I sound right here. Unforfuckinggiveable. And then I read the King said he wished he’d thought of it! GAHHHHH! Steve, you’re killing me, here!

…Okay. Then I took some time away and gave the movie another look. And I still prefer the novella. But…now I can sort of see where the theme is actually intact, and that Darabont just got there in a different way. I don’t like that way, but I will grant it some grace (because, you know, Stephen King loses sleep over what I think) because Darabont does make the point a bit more…forcefully…than King did.

Having said all that, the movie is otherwise pretty damn faithful, and I appreciate that. But as always, the book is better. Especially when narrated by the spectacular Frank Muller. Any time you can hear a King book narrated by Muller, do it. The man was magical, and taken far too early. (God rest ye, Mr. Muller, and thank you.)

The Mist has influenced a whole, whole lot of my writing–Hellworld is no exception. I have always had a soft spot for stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. The movie and novel Fortress by Gabrielle Lord comes to mind, that one about a group of Australian children kidnapped by four men for ransom…and what the kids do after being pushed to the edge. (That should probably be its own post. Also I’ve learned some things about the author’s politics that sort of sour me on the story, but if you can put that aside, Fortress is still amazing.)

This whole idea of “Everything was fine, and then out of nowhere, monsters!” is attractive to me for some reason. I guess because it’s real life writ large: everything was fine, and then out of nowhere, cancer/car accident/she cheated on me/whatever. We all know, and horror writers pray on this fact, that monsters do exist. They just sometimes look like parents, spouses, pastors, children, or the IRS.

One thing I love about The Mist so much is that it reads as though King was sitting there for a handful of days, pounding out the words, asking himself, “I wonder what happens next?” and having no idea until he wrote it. It doesn’t read like a well-planned story; it reads like the diary we will come to realize it is at story’s end. It reads like King put himself in that situation, and just kept asking himself what he’d do if in it.

That’s a very fun way to write.

The Mummy, The Will, and the Crypt by John Bellairs

Before there was such a thing as a Young Adult section in the bookstore, there was Juvenile Fiction, and there was Adult Fiction. That’s it. You had your Judy Blume, and you had your Stephen King, and never the two shall meet. Then you had your awkwardly juvenile like the inimitable Robert Cormier—awkward, because while his characters were teens, his themes and often plots were not. But there was no YA, so he got shelved in Juvenile.

Back in those heady days before Goosebumps—which we will return to in a future blog—if you wanted horror, real supernatural shit, there was one place to go: John Bellairs.

Bellairs (who, I am sad to report, passed away in 1991) was introduced to me via his first juvenile novel, The House With A Clock In Its Walls. Pretty good stuff; atmospheric and very literary (in retrospect. Back then, “literary” just meant “how books were written.” We didn’t have quite the breadth of Voice that readers today enjoy). I enjoyed and have read all of Bellairs’ work multiple times, but when it comes to the creep factor, none of them touches The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt.

I read Mummy at an age when I should not have been watching slasher movies, but did it anyway. By B-horror film standards—think Basket Case, or Tourist Trap—Bellairs’ work was tame; it was for children, after all, and this is in a time before Hunger Games and its explicit violence toward children ever would have made it to an agent’s desk. By today’s standards, Bellairs is working with his hands tied: he needs to be legitimately frightening but not bloody, gory, or even necessarily violent.

With Mummy, he succeeds spectacularly. The plot revolves around young Johnny, who becomes obsessed with finding a lost will of a powerful cereal magnate. There’s a reward for whoever finds it, and Johnny needs the money to pay for an operation for his grandmother. Pretty straightforward. But Bellairs populates his novels with quirky but utterly believable characters: Johnny, a bespectacled little nerd who—and this is brilliant, I think—manages to catch a cold before breaking and entering into the estate of the deceased businessman. It’s a small detail, but Bellairs takes that common experience and lets it work into Johnny’s climactic break-in. Think about it: When you have a bad cold, do you feel like getting off the couch, much less travelling halfway across your home state, at night, in the winter, alone, to break into an abandoned mansion?

Then there’s the Professor. One of the greats in literature, if you ask me; the Professor is an old man, seventies or so, who is as cranky as he is loyal. Bellairs breathes great life into this old guy, and builds a Miyagi-Daniel relationship between he and Johnny long before Karate Kid came on the scene. He also introduces Fergie, a gangly nerd who becomes Johnny’s first real friend; great comic relief and a stalwart ally in Johnny’s insane scheme.

Now what about the horror? Suffice it to say Bellair’s description of a walking, undead mummy influenced Hellworld to the point of outright homage. The book has a nasty witch, an eerie ghost, and the aforementioned mummy.

Bellairs excels in two particular areas: believable characters and authentic, gripping settings. Most, if not all, of his novels all occur in the Eastern U.S. near or during the Second World War; no cell phones, kids! Hell, sometimes not even a landline, depending on the location. But this isn’t just a gimmick, and it is not romanticized. Johnny’s dad in Mummy is a pilot, and all he or we know is that he was recently shot down over the Pacific, and no one seems to know if he’s alive or dead. With that palpable dread setting the scene, Bellairs goes on to give us chilling atmospheric details that captures things like what it might feel like to really, truly see a ghost come floating out of a window in the dead of night.

Grown-ups could read Mummy in an afternoon; it’s about the length of a Judy Blume YA. I think if you’ll give this Bellairs novel a shot, you’ll soon want the others, too.

(One note of caution, though: Because Bellairs passed away at a relatively young age, he left incomplete manuscripts behind, which were summarily finished and released by his publisher. I don’t recommend these; they are too plainly not the real Bellairs. I appreciate the attempt to honor his memory, but those novels fall short in my opinion.)

World War Z by Max Brooks

There are only a handful of books I really, truly, deeply wish I had written. Books that literally make me angry that I did not write them. One of them is World War Z.

I’ve met Max Brooks twice—and  was smart enough to get a picture the second time—and I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him I thought Z was one of the most intelligent novels I’d ever read. “Wow, really?” he said, or something like it. “Thanks!”

It’s true. The conceit of Z is simple: Instead of being about a zombie apocalypse, it’s in the aftermath…and humanity won. We did it. Brooks has written a horror novel that, no matter how you cut it, is one of optimism and faith. I mean, what an idiot, right? How the hell do you begin a novel by essentially stating, “The good guys win in the end”?

That’s exactly what he does, and that’s exactly why it works. The novel is told as a series of interviews of survivors, people who are now a part of rebuilding civilized society (no Governors or Negans here, thank you). The “interviews” are as authentic as any you’d read about Germany, Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. They are full of blood and viscera, terror and fear, as told by those who went through it, losing all they had in the process, barely escaping with their lives.

And in doing so, Brooks is able to insert gentle social commentary along the way. My favorite: Floridians building boats in near-hopeless attempts to sail to Cuba, where they hope to find work as maids and house cleaners. BOOM!  That is awesome.

World War Z cannot be replicated. The movie, without the book, would have been an entertaining little zombie flick; that they did not do exactly what Brooks did with the book is unforgivable. Imagine any number of Hollywood heavyweights—many of whom narrate the audiobook, beautifully—doing Band-of-Brothers-esque interview sequences about the zombie war. Just think about it. Can you see it? Ugh! I hope Brooks is allowed to do something like this in the future.

Anyway. There’s enough gore to keep the horror kids pleased, and zombie fans sated. But World War Z is really a book for just about any reader who enjoys strong, well-written fiction. Again, Brooks’ fundamental optimism about humanity is unrelenting, and that sets it apart from any other horror novel out there. Give it a shot, if you haven’t. Or at try the audio, which is abridged (sadly), but still excellent.

Nice to have met you, Mr. Brooks. Thank you!

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