By: Dr Jessica Folio
In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things are, young Max’s bedroom is transformed by the power of the protagonist’s imagination into an extraordinary setting including a forest and an island where he encounters malicious beasts called the “Wild Things.” The reference to Sendak’s title in our article unveils a double component : the emphasis recurrently laid by King on the belief in the superiority of the world of childhood which gives pre-eminence to imaginary elements over the rational adult world as regards the coping of fear and of the irrational. It also opens the path to a reflexion on the large range of interpretations vehicled by the adjective “wild:” not only is it perceived as referring to the untamed forces of the natural world but it can also refer to unearthed elements or to the dark recesses of the human mind. In our study, it unveils a specific treatment of what is natural or unnatural, of the Other. Paralleling Sendak’s vision of Max’s bedroom metamorphosed into an unknown environment, King chooses to have the Other crawl into and pervade his characters’ rational world.
In this article, we accept Stephen King’s invitation for a danse macabre with wild, incomprehensible, indefinable elements his two narratives, The Mist and The Raft, are permeated with. King makes use of the term “the thing” to designate the irrational, the unexplainable supernatural elements, in a nutshell, what is ungraspable by the logos (speech). This article aims at analyzing the intriguing layers of interpretation offered by the thingi that first and foremost indicates a rupture in the chain of associations between signifiers and signified ; this derives from the very lack of a precise name for supernatural phenomena, from the impossibility to categorize the unnatural object/ subject. The uncategorization, indefinability account for the feeling of abjectionii the thing engenders. Our study will first provide with an outline of King’s narratives before enlightening the description of the supernatural elements and eventually pointing out at the kaleidoscopic interpretations of the thing.
The Mist depicts the enveloping of the town of Bridgtoniii in an unnatural mist following a violent thunderstorm. The mist obliterates visibility and, as the story progresses, reveals the presence of different species of monstrous creatures. The town supermarket -crowded by customers restocking their provisions- is turned into a confined space where dissensions erupt between “the flat earthers” and the fanatically religious believers. The store, which takes on a Gothic hue, becomes the stage of the struggle for physical survival and for the maintaining of the characters’ sanity. Meanwhile, King unravels the relationship between the various characters, the main one being that of the protagonist David Drayton, his son Billy and his neighbor Brent Norton. The entrapment in the store progressively leads the characters to reveal the darkest, wildest side of their personnality, henceforth revealing that the presence of the wild things overwhelms outer and inner space. The town is left in a pandemonium state. A group of people led by David succeed in reaching his car ; this is preceded by the death of Ollie Weeks, cut in half by an indescribable creature and by the shooting of Mrs Carmody, a parodic Delphes oracle who convinces the majority of the customers that the apocalypse has come and that human sacrifice is the only source of salvation to be protected from God’s wrath. In the final part of the narrative, David depicts his peregrinations in the maze-like city where landmarks have been destroyed by the monstrous creatures. He heads south after hearing a unique word, “Hartford,”on the radio “‘just to see the sun again’” (King 138).
The theme of the undefinable supernatural entity also prevails in The Raft. The short story introduces four college students in Pennsylvania who decide to go and swim in a remote lake in order to celebrate the end of summer. The extreme coldness is added to an isolation on a raft in the middle of the lake when a dark patch appearing to prey on them is discovered on the water. The fourteen boards constituting the raft is the stage of the disclosing of conflictual hidden desires between two young men, Randy and Deke, and two young women, Rachel and Laverne. The so-called friendship hides a prevailing dishonesty, condescension and rivalry. Here also, the wildness affects the natural and the human world. The dark patch, first believed to be an oil-slick reveals itself as a living, vampirish creature that produces hypnotizing colors on the surface. It first grabs Rachel who touches the water with her finger and dissolves her body by totally absorbing it. As Deke decides to swim up to the shore, his foot is grabbed by the creature and his body is slowly consumed through the crack between two boards. The creature’s needs become more urgent and it takes advantage of Randy and Laverne’s sexual intercourse and of the fact that Laverne’s hair is in the water to add her to its victims. As hours pass away, Randy eventually surrenders to his fate and no longers looks away from the colors the creature produces at the end of the story.
Both narratives gathered in the collection Skeleton Crew enlighten the confrontation with the unknown by inserting it into a realistic spatio-temporal context. They both stage the thing as a central character. The thing refers to an unnatural element -the mist, the dark patch- but it also is an auxiliary of the appearance of unsayable and incomprehensible elements : the mist conceals monstrous creatures which are themselves described as “things” (King 121). The mist is made other by its characteristics : its compact texture, uniformity blocking sight, sound or radio signals, its opaque whiteness, the absence of rainbows, the rapidity of its invasion or its absence of moisture.
Our primary interest is King’s description of his supernatural creatures as figures of in-betweeness intertwining lack and excess. They are indissociable with the acrid smell of decay of the mist, with the inhuman shrieks of people engulfed in it and the unearthly sounds of the creatures. The first appearance of the alien creatures occurs in the storage room ; vampirish tentacles emerge out of the mist, capture the character Norm, eats him up and makes him disappear into the mist. This Lovecraftian reptilian monster is depicted through an accumulation of adjectives, incongrous comparisons and juxtapositions with common elements, giving a grotesque hue to the tentacles : “the size of a grass snake,”“it was slate gray on top, shading to a fleshy pink underneath. And there were rows of suckers on the underside. They were moving and writhing like hundreds of small, puckering mouths” (King 59). “The big ones had candy-pink suckers that seemed the size of manhole covers.” It is then compared to “a great blind earthworm” (King 61). The tentacles are a patchwork of colours and images, mingling animal and object features. King stresses Norm’s slow devouring as well as his hybrid transformation into a man-tentacle before he is pulled into the mist : “his body boiled with tentacles, and blood pattered serenely down on the concrete in dime-size droplets” (King 63). Unexpected comparisons prevail for Norm’s death that is almost made insignificant. Nonetheless, the readers cannot but notice the lack inserted in the narrative since King does not depict the creature those tentacles are attached to. The author only gives clues about the periphery of the central body of the monstrosity. The thing (the tentacles) is an extension of another thing (an unsaid body) which awakens the readers’s darkest fantasies ; the tentacles are literally the extension of a void the readers have to complete by themselvesiv but the completion seems to be an endless delusion. The frontier is blurred between abyssal sea creatures and earthly creatures as King’s monster has the proportions of the legendary Kraken but is improbably transposed to the terrestrial element.
The characters are then confronted with a bug creature crawling on the glass of the store : “I couldn’t tell what it was, but I could see it” (King 98). King’s monstrous creatures are qualified by what they are not, by negation, in order to echo the shattering of rational explanations, the omnipresence of instable signifiers. King emphasizes the pinkish color of the flying thing, its bulbous eyes, its membranous wings and a protruding limb interpreted as a sexual organ or a stinger. The thing establishes a rupture in the connecting chain between signifiers and signified for the signfiers themselves are marked by instability. Likewise, a flying creature snatching “the crawling things off the glass” (King 99) is a figure of indecipherability : “it was a flying thing. Beyond that I could not have said for sure…. something with flapping, leathery wings, an albino-white body, and reddish eyes” (King 99-100). The creature is once more a patchwork of incongrous elements and colors, a dinosaur-like monster that flies into the supermarket and causes Tom Smalley’s death. It is an excess of grotesqueness (in matter and colors), of otherness and insubstantiality : “there was the sensation of striking something with no more real substance than a box kite” (King 101-2). It enacts the rupture between dream and reality, sanity and insanity, “something out of a lunatic’s nightmare” (King 100).
Another wild creature is a spider with corrosive webs and an unsettling number of legs once more defined by what it is not : “it was something totally different, perhaps not really a spider at all” (King 129). Its unearthly aspect turns it into « a phantasm” (King 144), a creation of the mind. The impossibility to apply meaning, the ungraspability of the thing disrupt the characters’ mental equilibrium : “looking at this nightmare […] I felt my mind trying to tear completely loose from its moorings” (King 129). Humans then become prey to a six-legged creature with deeply wrinkled skin ludicrously assimilated to Mrs Carmody’s hands. King only makes the Cyclopean tower-like legs visible and has the rest of the body lost itself into the mist and jointly in the recesses of the readers’ unconscious. One further example of the thing is a creature with “an iridescent green body and long transparent wings” compared to “a grossly misshapen dragonfly” (King 148). The grotesque aspect of the thing, its divergence from a common element which is in fact a reference to its otherness and hybridity, entrap the reader into an incompleteness. The disproportion of dimensions parallels the unnatural quality of the mist and the excessive proportion of the creatures.
The thing is also depicted throughout an oscillation between lack and hypermonstrationv in The Raft. It is a shapeshifting dark patch in the lake, defying the speed of the water movement and blending various colors to hypnotize its preys : “ [Randy] saw a strange look in her eyes, a round blankness that seemed queerly like the round blankness of the thing in the water” (King 297). This similitude foreshadows Rachel’s absorption in the lustreless black patch, the reducing of her body to nothingness. The patch feeds from its victims and reduces them into a void: “the black, viscous substance ran up her arm like mud … and under it, Randy saw her skin dissolving” (King 298). The thing echoes the vampirish tentacles in The Mist : “Randy could see it sinking into her like acid, and when her jugular vein gave way in a dark pumping jet, he saw the thing send out a pseudopod after the escaping blood” (King 299). At the image of the bodies vanishing within the substantial mist, Rachel’s body is liquified within the black patch.
Echoing the unexplainable force of the alien tentacles, the black patch is endowed with “monstrous and unknowable force” (King 307) and makes Rachel’s body “inhuman” (King 300) by making it one with the thing, a symbol of devouring orality. Further on, the dark substance is described as destroying any law of gravity when it sucks Deke’s body between two boards of the raft. The thing is linked to permeating images of sucking, of eating away the human body. The unbearable sight of the body turned into a vehicle of horror stances out : “Randy looked away again, out across the lake […] Minutes passed…” (King 309) The unconceivability of the thing endangers, like the creatures in the mist, the characters’ sanity : Laverne falls “into a state of shock-unconsciousness” (King 308) and “Randy suddenly understood that madness -real lunacy- was perhaps not far away at all” (King 309). The black patch improbably comes out of the water and obliterates Laverne’s face : “the thing twisted and moved where her face had been” (King 315). This quotation exemplifies once again the thing-ification, the void-ification of the body by the thing.
A dichotomy lays in the chosen ending for the narratives. The thing leaves no hope to the characters in The Raft ; the surrender to otherness is total and eventually welcomed. The thing initially conveys abjection, an intermingling of attraction and repulsion but at the final moment it only becomes a vehicle of the death instinct.vi However, in The Mist, going South constitutes the hope of escaping the damping mist. There is no resignation ; the life instinct is still present. Both narratives give rise to an explosion of diverging feelings and to the occurring of unexpected sexual intercourses as an abreaction of the horror of the Other. Sexual intercourse is associated to darkness and warmth. Physical and mental comfort are searched for. For Randy, pleasure is reached while watching the patch in the lake and conjuring up summer memories before realizing the horror of the thing tangled in Laverne’s hair. The occurring of sexual intercourses highlights the fact that the narratives are suffused with the senses of sight, touch, smell or hearing. The creatures spot the victims with the sense of smell. The theme of the body is perceived as a leitmotiv ; the latter is dismembered, dehumanized, annihilated, only considered as a means of subsistance, as an element to be integrated into the thing. Blood flows from oozing orifices (eyes, ears, mouth) in The Raft. The stress is laid in The Mist on fragmentation, disintegration : a man is found headless in the pharmacy, Ollie Weeks is cut in half. The Thingvii is purposely malignant remaining “an impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us.”viii
By enunciating the idea of sacrifice in The Mist, Mrs Carmody exemplifies Zizek’s “primordial sense of sacrifice : to interpose an object between ourselves and the Thing”ix; in King’s texts, the human body is sacrified to avoid facing the unconceivability of the Thing. A fragmented body can be related to when a monstrous, unnatural creature can’t. It could be said that the Thing materializes the implacable insignificance of the human body. The notion of sacrifice also reveals the seed of wildness in ordinary persons, their regression to archaic thoughts. Mrs Carmody is described as « witch-like” (80) and the search for the person responsible for the mist and the willingness to sacrifice human blood to regain normality liken Mrs Carmody and her followers to witch hunters. “The wilderness triggers the anamnesis of ancient times, the rememoring of pagan terrors.”x Lauric Guillaud insightfully enunciates the survival of the unappeased feeling of terror stemming from the American wilderness, its reference to “an inner space of insanity, inherited from the Puritans and the annihilation of the Indians.”xi The town of Bridgton is a chaotic intermingling of fallen trees, devastated infrastructures and abandoned vehicles. Echoing the image of the supposedly malevolent Indians shredding to pieces the regulated world of the Whites,xii the unearthed creatures change Bridgton into an urban “howling wilderness.”xiii The horror does not originate from subterranean locixiv but is directly brought to earth and tears up the protecting veil of rational knowledge.
Therefore, the Thing takes on multifarious shapes : in The mist, it designates the mist itself and the creatures it discloses. In The Raft, it is the vampirish substance in the lake and the characters’ bodies as they dissolve into that dark matter. The Thing turns the human body into a blank in the text, making it disappear. It also affects the body of the text itself. The blanks in the texts echo the indecipherable whiteness of the mist. The impossibility of connecting signifiers and signified, of rationalizing the Thing, of inserting it into the Symbolic are signalled by hyphens, spaces and suspension points. Besides, the use of repetitions, italics and interjections appear to express a return to otherness ; the text itself seems to rebel against the imposed void.
Lacan’s perception of the Thing as “this beyond-of-the-signified” (The Ethics 54), “that which is the most lacking in a relationship to the individual” (The Ethics 55) casts a meaningful light on King’s texts and on the blanks left in the latter. The Thing clearly marks the irruption of the Real into the Symbolic.xv It is an excess of unsayability that is an auxiliary of the most nightmarish fantasies and accounts for the characters’ oscillation into insanity. The Thing condemns the characters to confinement (in a supermarket) or to isolation (on a lake), in other words to a locus commonizing Slavoj Zizek’s presentation of “the Space (the sacred/ forbidden Zone) in which the gap between the Symbolic and the Real is closed, i.e. in which, to put it somewhat bluntly, our desires are directly materialized.”xvi In The Mist, David is glad the mist prevents him from having a perfect vision of the monstrous creatures ; he describes them as they appear, not letting go of his imagination. In The Raft though, the patch’s colors directly address the characters’ fantasies : Randy is oblivious of the danger of the Thing as the image of a perfect summer emerges in his mind. It is as though the patch allowed the conjuring up of Randy’s desires. The latter are not “traumatic fantasies” as the Thing misleads the characters into thinking about pleasurable moments. The Thing forces its presence within the Symbolic and takes precedence when Randy abandons himself to the patch or when one of the flying things enters the supermarket through the broken glass in The Mist.
The vision of the Thing as “an Id machine”xvii –at least in The Raft– helps explain its hypnotizing force, its fascinating impact hammered out in King’s narratives. The latin origin of the word “fascination” which refers to the term “phallus” deserves to be put forward. Not only does this echo the stress laid previously on the cathartic sexual intercourses between the characters but also conjures up Lacan’s perception of jouissance as a signal of a lack in the Other, as a signal of infinity. The readers’ interrogations remain unresolved. It may be this very lack of answers, the excess of something, of “featurelessness”xviii that account for the readers’ drive, unquenchable thirst for this type of narrative. Just as for Lacan, the very nature of the drive is to regenerate itself, the readers seem endlessly compelled to return to such texts as King’s.
The Thing engulfs any signal of human presence and reverses rationality into irrationality : Brown’s attempt at trying to have people stop taking beer in the supermarket for free or his threatening to report any shoplifting become paradoxically irrational. Wildness crawls within every layer of the narratives. The multifarious explanations given as regards the mist parallels its kaleidoscopic interpretations : it is considered as a government experiment (as proven by the suicide of two Army officers in the storage room of the supermarket), or as a group hypnosis or lunacy (76), as a joke (70), as a dream (105) or as a divine punishment for man’s hubris. The Thing not only devours the world as a new Leviathan but replaces it by something that is not : not a mist, not a spider, not a scorpion, not a bird, not an oil-slick, not a body or not a town. The Thing is an expression of the negation of the Symbolic and of the instability of the body.
The invasion by unnatural forces, by creatures of various shapes and origins, by the wild, the Other: such is revealed the Thing which, in King’s texts, establishes a zone of indeterminacy, of “semblance,”xix paralleling the notion of negation pointed out previously. The Thing is an anchorage of rupture, an impossibility of reaching closure, of reasserting the Symbolic. The shattering of the readers’ horizon of expectationsxx of a resolved crisis inevitably traps them into the whirl of the unsolvable mystery of the Thing.
i At this point, the term is used without inverted commas to designate the general appearance of supernatural elements.
ii It is seen in the Kristevan sense of a mingling of co-existing feelings of attraction and repulsion for the abject object / subject.
iii The state of Maine is once more the locus of the erupting presence of the Other. Such is the case in such narratives as It, Needful Things or Insomnia.
iv There is a reference to Umberto Eco’s notion of blanks in the text or Wolfgang Iser’s indeterminacy. It refers to an active participation of the reader to fill in the blanks left in the text by the writer; the readers themselves go on a quest for meaning.
v The term is used by Denis Mellier in his thesis : La terreur fantastique et l’écriture de l’excès: théorie et pratique du récit terrifiant (1994). It refers to an excessive monstration as a cornerstone of fantastic literature.
vi Death instincts “strive towards the reduction of tensions to zero-point. In other words, their goal is to bring the living being back to the inorganic state” (97). Oppositely, life instincts aim at maintaining vital units; “they embrace not only the sexual instincts proper but also the instincts of self-preservation” (Laplanche and Pontalis 241).
vii At this point, the capital letter is used for the Thing as we sail on the sea of psychoanalysis. We are concerned with the significance of the term.
viii Zizek, Slavoj. “The Thing from Inner Space.”Mainview. September 1999.
xGuillaud, Lauric. Le retour des morts. Pertuis : Rouge Profond, 2010, 112. It is my translation.
xi Ibid. 114.
xii Norton and David were involved into a lawsuit because of an issue of land ownership ; both characters are deeply attached to their properties and to their roots symbolized by their attachment to old trees on their lands.
xiii Guillaud 77.
xiv Lauric Guillaud insightfully depicts the recurrent motif of the vertical descent in narratives dealing with the discovery of lost worlds and hybrid, monstrous creatures. This can be seen for instance in Lovecraft’s works, Jules Verne’s, J.-H Rosny Aîné’s or Abraham Merritt’s. In the wake of Micea Eliade’s theories, initiatory images prevail : the regressus ad uterum to the mythical world of the origins, the confrontation with monsters, the hero’s symbolic death, the access to the sacred primitive mysteries announcing the rebirth and the abolition of the profane state.
xv Lacan tried to uncover the processes of the unconscious through language and its associations. If the Imaginary is related to identifications and is tied to the mirror stage, the Symbolic is marked by language and by the acceptance of the law made possible by the acceptance of the Name-of-the-Father. The Real cannot be expressed in language due to the fact that the very entrance into language marks the separation from the Real.
xvi Zizek, Slavoj. “The Thing from Inner Space.”Mainview. September 1999.
xviii King 117.
xix King 62.
xx It is a reference to Henry Jauss’s concept developed in Pour une esthétique de la réception. Paris : Gallimard, 1978
Guillaud, Lauric. Le retour des morts : imagination, science, verticalité. Pertuis : Rouge Profond, 2010.
King, Stephen. Skeleton Crew. London : Time Warner Books, 1993.
Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis1959-1960 : The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Ed. Jacques-Allain Miller. UK : Routledge, 1992.
—, On Feminine Sexuality : the Limits of Love and Knowledge. New York : Norton, 1978.
Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, J.B. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: The Hogarth Press, 1973.
Sendak Maurice. Where the Wild Things are. New York : Harper & Row, 1963.
Zizek, Slavoj. « The Thing from Inner Space. » Mainview. September 1999.
Categories: Literary criticism