I gave myself an excuse to imagine the end of the world one summer day.
Summer 1995: staying with family between junior and senior year of college, I’d joined my parents and several relatives to drive south of Portland to another part of the Willamette River Valley. Around Dallas, if I remember right. My cousin Jeff (then age 12) was playing softball; we were there to cheer him on. The sky had tiny scattered clouds moving slowly against the blue. You and I, we’ve seen many skies like it. Summer warmth, of course, but manageable, as long as my pale self was sufficiently lotioned up. I took pictures, at hobby level of proficiency, of the game, including a good moment of Jeff running to home plate and doing a fist pump. A nice “Yes!” moment.
Part of the time, I read. Other times, I photographed the game, my family, and whatever other interesting shots I could get. It was a pretty spot: fields and lawns surrounding the baseball diamond and the neighboring school, with hills folding up toward the south and west with trees. Much was green. You’ve seen many places like it, unless you live in the Canadian north or the Australian Outback: pretty, but also pretty generic.
Then I saw the puff.
At first it looked like a tuft of white cloud, appearing from behind the low hill southwest of us. It took a few moments of looking for me to realize that it wasn’t moving in the same direction as the other tiny clouds. And it seemed to be growing.
Maybe it was from a smokestack. It’s timberland, that area; it still has mills. But the isolated, out-of-context puff looked somehow wrong.
Images of an industrial accident popped into my head.
A year before, in summer 1994, I’d read my first Stephen King book, the expanded edition of The Stand, because I’d seen the decent miniseries version that ABC had run. The book I’d brought to that game was King’s later non-fiction work, Danse Macabre, analyzing horror and why and how it works, and (among many other things) talking about the moments in horror stories where things start to go wrong. It could be in Carrie when the light bulb explodes; it could be in Larry Cohen’s film It’s Alive! when a doctor stumbles wounded out of an operating room; it can even be the moment in the first sentence of 1984 when the clock strikes thirteen, Orwell’s way of signaling that the world of his story is subtly off. (Yes, I could analyze 1984 as a horror story.)
King has made a career out of visualizing and describing those moments when things begin to go wrong, to become wrong. And I, with my King book at hand, started visualizing something wrong like that: the puff was the leading edge of a poison cloud, about to stain the blue sky and sicken everyone at the game. Closer to where the cloud had begun, some hills away from us, people would be dying quickly; birds would falter and fall out of the sky; rodents would panic. Some people would run for it; some would escape, at least for a time, some wouldn’t. Maybe others would be trying to stop the accident, contain it, at least limit its impact. Maybe they’d succeed; maybe they’d fail. I wouldn’t know. I might not ever find out.
Thoughts like that ran quickly through my head. They left me darkly amused. It’s the end! The end comes with a cloud! (I did not yet know of King’s story The Mist; maybe had I read it, I would’ve compared and contrasted my mental image of the mist with the puff of possible death seemingly headed our way.) The thought stopped, and I went on to other thoughts, plus other actions: more photography, more visiting with family, more cheering of Jeff’s team. And the thought, while not evolving from there, stayed put in a part of my mind; revived from its dormancy now because I decided to think about it.
Stephen King has said how he’s often darkly amused by what his mind conjures. He wrote in Danse Macabre about the both terrible and weirdly liberating feeling of killing off 98% of our race in The Stand – hey! See how I tie in these two books so conveniently – and when I saw him speak at the Schnitzer in 2006, he described the moment of inspiration for his novel Cell. To an extent, I get that. I get him. It was a good sign that I was going to be a good fan.
(This entry was written in part for even more ardent Stephen King fan docbrite.)