Sunday, October 25, 2020

An Inspiration for Stephen King's The Mist?

"It's best to be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).  If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.  If, on the other hand, you decide I'm crazy, that's fine.  You won't be the first (163)".  That's how Stephen King describes the way in which he gets his ideas.  It can all be found in his autobiographical instruction manual, On Writing.  Whatever else can or should be said about him, its obvious enough that King was dead serious when he both thought up and wrote down that statement.  I haven't seen him say or do anything else in all the years since that would lead me to believe he's changed his mind on the subject.  His is a career of soaring heights, mixed in the the occasional embarrassment.  Throughout it all, though, that idea of a work of fiction as an art that makes itself, or emerges from the depths of imagination as something fully formed, yet perhaps always seen through a dark glass, appears to have remained constant.

King has never been what you'd call a Rhodes Scholar, though he may have something in the way of a philosophy.  It's no real surprise, given his chosen profession, that a lot of it centers on what he calls "The Art of the Craft".  The real question is whether there is enough experience to bear his main idea out?  The good news, so far as I can see, is that I have heard other artists, not just book writers, but also playwrights, screenplayers, painters, and poets express the same conviction.  The best testimony of this same process at work has to come from the pen of J.R.R.Tolkien.  In the midst of his Collected Letters, Tolkien makes several repeated statements that he often had no idea that his most famous work was going to take the narrative twists and turns that wound up in the finished product.  "I have long ceased to invent", he says at one point, "(though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my 'invention'): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.  Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents.  I came at last to the point, and wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought; just as it now is.  And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all (italics mine, sic) (212)".

Likewise, Neil Gaiman once described his writing method in the opening preface to a screenplay of his called Mirrormask. "...I'll talk about it to the point where I'm ready to start writing, and then I start writing and find out the rest of it as I go along (12)".  Rudyard Kipling, meanwhile, maintained a lot earlier than either of the three authors mentioned above that all of his best work was done not by him, but rather under the influence of what he referred to as his daemon.  In other words, all he meant is that he couldn't fulfill his proper function as a writer unless the muse in his mind spoke up.  He claimed that all his best work was done under the influence of this same muse.  In fact, it is possible that Kipling's short narrative, "The Greatest Story in the World" is about how the creative work is lacking without the necessary inspiration in place.  It's main lead is a very shallow, modern young lad who wants to be a writer.  Most of what he writes is pure drivel.  Then there will come moments when something his mind speaks up, and an epic tale about the exploits of a Grecian galley slave start to form on the page.  When this influence withdraws, however, nothing comes out right.  The whole thing is an allegory that anticipates King's argument by at least a whole century.

The preponderance of written evidence all attests to the same conclusion.  In order to do their job, all the best writers have to get out of the way and let the imagination start talking of its own accord.  They seem to rely on it as something that has to be done even when the final results may be less than flattering to their own selves.  The point is that the story is always the boss.  To try an make it anything less is to tell a lie with no thematic truth anywhere in it, and hence, a complete and total failure.  What King and the rest of the cavalcade seem to have described is a method of composition that, in essence, is the closest any of them will ever get to something like a standard operating procedure.  It is what it is.  Like Mt. Everest, the human mind is something that is just there, and so is the peculiar function known as the imagination, which appears to be a part of it.  Some of us have found ways to tap into that function.  The results can be known by many names like The Odyssey, 221 B Baker Street, or Middle Earth.  These things have all happened, once upon a by.  And after all these years, the question of where do the stories come from is still hanging around.

I'm inclined to believe King, for what it's worth.  I've run across too much evidence (some of it cited above) of the kind of phenomenon he talks about to believe he's just making up some kind of excuse.  The interesting part is how it's an explanation that still leaves a sense of mystery behind, not because the author is trying to obfuscate, but really because its all he knows for the most part.  "In most cases", King observes, "three or four out of every five, let's say - I know where I was when I got the idea for a certain story, what combination of events (usually mundane) set that story off.  The genesis of It, for example, was my crossing a wooden bridge, listening to the hollow thump of my boot-heels, and thinking of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."  In the case of Cujo it was an actual encounter with an ill-tempered Saint Bernard.  Pet Sematary arose from my daughter's grief when her beloved pet cat, Smucky, was run over on the highway near our house.

"Sometimes, however, I just can't remember how I I arrived at a particular novel or story.  In these cases the seed of the story seems to be an image rather than an idea, a mental snapshot so powerful it eventually calls characters and incidents the way some ultrasonic whistles supposedly call every dog in the neighborhood.  These are, to me, at least, the true creative mysteries: stories that have no real antecedents, that come on their own.  The Green Mile began with an image of a huge black man standing in his jail cell and watching the approach of a trusty selling candy and cigarettes from an old metal cart with a squeaky wheel (vii)".  In the case of a story like The Mist the inspiration seems to have been of this same sort, for the most part.  

The way King tells it, he was doing nothing more than browsing through the aisles of a supermarket when the moment of inspiration just walked it right to him.  "In the market, my muse suddenly shat on my head - this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.  I was halfway down the middles aisle, looking for hot-dog buns, when I imagined a big prehistoric bird flapping its way toward the meat counter at the back, knocking over cans of pineapple chunks and bottles of tomato sauce.  By the time my son Joe and I were in the checkout lane, I was amusing myself with a story about all these people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by prehistoric animals.  I thought it was wildly funny - what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Bert I. Gordon.  I wrote half the story that night and the rest the following week (750)".      

That's the point of origin account given, based on the author notes in his 1980s short shorty collection, Skeleton Crew.  There's no real reason to doubt his account.  I'm pretty sure King is just telling all he's ever really known about this story.  He's also one of those writers who isn't stingy about sharing the contents of his own personal library with fans and readers in general.  King often likes to drop the names of writers whose work has left him with a sense of inspiration or enjoyment.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of those books are short story collections.  I just wonder sometimes if any of those collections contain an entry by some guy known as H.F. Arnold.  Nobody knows him, that's a pretty sure guarantee.  The name is a drawn blank for most people, and I don't even know what he looks like.  He's just a name on a page, attached to a certain short story.  It's the contents of that story, however brief it is, that gives me pause.  It makes me wonder where writings like The Mist really come from.  Are there types of stories that get retold more often than audiences or artists think or know about?  Wouldn't it be funny if The Mist had an unknown inspiration?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Suspense: Ghost Hunt (1949).

In my last post, I raised a question about the nature of Found Footage.  I was curious to know whether it was possible to trace its roots as far back as the Golden Age of Old Time Radio?  I don't think it's the sort of question many people bother to ask themselves, even among fans of the sub-genre.  I could be wrong on that.  However my own experience is that you can't make yourself curious about something you don't even know exists.  For most audiences, the Found Footage film had its big debut with the release of the original Blair Witch, way back in 99.  Like everyone else, I had no reason to suspect the sub-genre was a lot older than it looked.  There's even a nice bit of irony involved with my case.  I get to be even more of a punchline because I'd already listened to the story under discussion here today.  This happened way back sometime at the start or early mid-point of the 90s.  It was either in 91 or sometime during or prior to 1994.  It was really my folks who introduced me to the charms of yesteryear.  They did it through buying a compilation of what used to known audio as cassette tapes.  These were like the CDs of the analog era, except all the content was recorded onto spools of physical tape, rather than digital MP3s.  Anyway, one of these collections was a number of maybe three to five cassettes, with each side containing a 30 minute episode from a show I'd never heard of before. 

It was called Suspense, and after some digging, I've discovered that this was the closest thing to the Really Big Show of ancient, Dramatic Radio.  What's interesting to note is that I'm not sure of any TV show or series of this era that has been able to achieve the same height.  It's possible that a series like Breaking Bad comes close, yet even here, I'm sort of forced to remain unsure about that.  This is an irony that gets doubled when you realize Alfred Hitchcock had a hand in bringing Suspense to life.  It's a genuine, forgotten achievement.  Anyway, on one of the tapes my parents bought for me, there was one episode titled Ghost Hunt.  I was, and still remain, a very avid fan of the Horror genre.  It's what got me interested in reading books to begin with.  The fact that it could sometimes appear on TV, the movies, and now on radio was something of an added bonus that continues to this day.  Perhaps that's not so shabby an accomplishment when you consider how old a lot of that stuff is. 

I settled in, listened to the Ghost Hunt episode, had a good time, the worlds turned on its axis, as it always does, and things went on.  The irony comes in when Blair Witch  arrived on the scene.  Like a lot of folks in the audience, I was one of the very gullible ones who got caught up in that film's marketing ploy.  It was played with such brilliant perfection that there might have been a time when I was perhaps in the vicinity, on the verge of coming somewhere near to wondering if it was all true.  We all make mistakes, as the advancing years seem determined to prove to us all in various ways.  Even as a fake, though, whatever you want to say about its quality, what can't be denied is the skill with which the filmmakers were able to pull off their gambit.  It's kind of a small marvel, in its own way.  The real punchline, however, is just this.  I never saw, but rather listened to a story with what has to be more or less the exact same premise as Blair Witch.  To top it all off, the radio play beat Sanchez and Myrick to the punch by about 49 or 50 whole years.  The whole joke is perfected by a final revelation, one which might be surprising for the way in which it re-orients the nature of the Found Footage sub-genre.  That means there's plenty to unpack and examine here.  However, let's start one thing at a time.