Horror, as a genre of fiction, plays a very important part in the human experience. Through horror stories, mankind is allowed to experience fear in a safe environment. For us, fear is thrilling; the rush of endorphins that one feels when they are scared, and the relief that pours over us when the danger is gone, is something that many people chase over and over again. Horror is also important to allow us to face existing fears, and figure out why we are so frightened of them. In this way, horror helps us learn more about ourselves and how we work, and provides a thrilling escape from the everyday.
Stephen King, in his decades-long career, has been at the forefront of horror fiction, spinning tales of the supernatural and the horrific that creep their way into everyday life in the most disturbing ways. In this essay, three Stephen King stories will be evaluated - the novel The Mist, the novella collection Full Dark, No Stars, and the short story "The Man in the Black Suit." In these works, normal fears (whether rational or irrational) are used and exploited to great effect in order to elicit a fearful reaction from an audience; the relief that comes after experiencing this work of horror allows these fears to be confronted.
Stephen King's The Mist conveys a similar set of fears, but the fear of an apocalypse happens during the events of the story, instead of Matheson's view of the aftermath. In this story, a small town in Maine is attacked by creatures hidden in a mist that covers the entire town. Throughout the book, the townspeople do their best to survive and avoid their fate. This type of story plays mainly on fear of the unknown - the mist is clearly indicative of that. Much like the dark, some people can let their imagination run wild with what they cannot see; since you cannot see in the mist, your mind conjures up all sorts of things that could be contained within. King's book makes them manifest, and the characters in the book have to face the reality that they will die because of what we fantasize about. In addition to that, the characters deal with the same fears of creatures and monsters.
The biggest fear, and something that King plays on frequently, is the idea of a small town - a home - housing such a horrendous evil. The Mist just focuses in on a small town. With the type of familiarity present in those who live in small towns, it can become harder to imagine your hometown as a battleground, or the site for a fight for survival. King, in this book, brings the horror home, showing that nowhere is safe. This allows the reader to indulge in the idea of even their little hamlet becoming overrun with fantastical creatures.
King's short story, "The Man in the Black Suit," tells the sale of a nine year old child named Gary, who runs into a mysterious man wearing a three-piece black suit. The man quickly reveals himself to be the devil, as he smells of burning matches and he tells Gary awful things, including the notion that his mother has died while he was away. Escaping from the man by throwing the fish Gary had caught at him, he returns home to his father to discover that his mother is just fine. While everything seems to be all right, the fact that he just narrowly escaped death is something that haunts Gary for the rest of his life. As an old man, he even wonders about where he will go once he does; to the God that he has prayed to his entire life, or to the Man in the Black Suit whom he had escaped as a young child?
This particular short story deals with the trauma and devastating nature of the fear of death, especially once experienced as a young child. As a ninety-year-old man, Gary is starting to slip mentally and forget things, but he still remembers the Man in the Black Suit most vividly of all: “Yet of all the memories, the once of the man in the black suit is the strongest, and glows with its own spectral, haunted light” (69). There are many different visceral fears that King exploits in this story; the fear of strangers as a child, the fear of bees (as exemplified by Gary's initial run-in with the bee, and the loss of his brother Dan to an allergic reaction to the sting of a bee), and the eventual fear of one's death. In essence, Gary loses his innocence the day he runs into the Man in the Black Suit, as from then on he has to deal with hard truths and scary potentials - like the death of his mother, and the fact that there is, in fact, evil in the world that he cannot escape: “Until that Saturday in 1914, I had thought that bears were the worst thing the forest could hold” (61).. By placing the audience in Gary's shoes, especially as he narrates the story from such a long time after the actual incident, the idea of something so fearful staying with him all these years is what stays with the reader long after they finish the story.
In the novella collection Full Dark, No Stars, four stories of horror and terror are provided by King. In "1922," a murderous farmer named Wilfred James receives a "Telltale Heart"-like haunting of his dead wife, whom he killed and dumped in a rat-infested hole to keep her from selling the farm. In "Big Driver," a young mystery writer is assaulted and raped, and she soon decides to take her revenge on the perpetrators. In "Fair Extension," a dying man makes a Faustian bargain to transfer the weight of his misfortune onto his best friend in exchange for a new lease on life and new prosperity. Finally, in "A Good Marriage," a good wife suddenly starts to suspect that her seemingly innocent husband may be a serial killer responsible for several murders in her area.
All four stories deal with deeply-explored themes and subjects that terrify most; many of the stories are tales of revenge and secrecy, particularly within romantic relationships. ”A Good Marriage," in particular, is based on the BTK Killer, a famous serial killer whose wife was criticized for not knowing that her husband was a killer. Of particular interest in many of these works is the nature of murder and why it is perpetrated even in the innocent - many times, the protagonist pre-emptively kills their victim either to save their own lives or to gain some kind of advantage over others. With these stories, King shows us the darker parts of ourselves, including what exactly would drive us to murder as well. In "Fair Extension," the capriciousness of man is shown in the complete and utter destruction of the main character's best friend and his family, all in exchange for his own success and good fortune. While many of the stories in Full Dark, No Stars do not have a supernatural element (some of them are just true crime-level tales of murder and intrigue), the terrifying nature of them is just how mundane and close to home the lives of the protagonists are. The fact that most of them are regular people, married and with normal lives and jobs, yet encounter awful circumstances like murder and hauntings, brings it is unique brand of terror that King excels in.
These three works, written by King, help to exemplify what is so effective about horror as a genre. Both of these tales depict regular fears that people have and exaggerates them to a truly terrifying degree. By emphasizing the very things that we are afraid of, we can expose ourselves to them in a safe way, letting ourselves know that it's going to be okay. Horror, more than most genres, allows us to vicariously face our fears, and come out the other side with a better understanding of ourselves.
King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars. Scribner, 2010. Print.
King, Stephen. "The Man in the Black Suit." in Six Stories, Everything's Eventual. Philtrum
Press, 1995. Print.
King, Stephen. The Mist. Viking Press, 1980. Print.