by Stephen King
[Updated to remove reference to my no longer used Star Rating system.]
Are you ready for the end of the world? Truly, right now, if it happened, would you be prepared? It's one thing to talk and write about it, but another to experience it. We are better equipped today to handle this than we were pre-SHTF, but only because we have experienced the end of the world and survived. And when ours occurred, it started slowly, like a brush fire. We had days, or at least hours, to grok what was happening and take steps to deal with it. But what if it came out of the blue? Suppose your first inkling of the undead was a zombie battering down the conference room door during your weekly status meeting? I bet you wouldn't be here today.
Stephen King, a famous writer from before World War Z, wrote a piece of fiction that masterfully addresses this issue: The Mist, part of his collection of short stories titled Skeleton Crew. It has recently been made into a movie directed by Frank Darabont. I am covering both instances of this story in a single review because there is very little substantive difference between the two.
WARNING: Here there be spoilers!
The trigger is the eponymous mist that envelops the town as cover for, or perhaps the cause of, a range of otherworldly creatures that seek to end the world as we know it. Luck is the first variable that determines who survives. No matter how well prepared you might be, physically and mentally, if you are caught in the wrong place, you're dead. Even if you weren't, though, this would have been a difficult event to cope with emotionally. I dare say few would be able to redraw their mental maps in order to account for a bestiary that ranges from vulture-sized creatures with a poisonous sting to enormous, many legged monsters capable of crushing buildings. As in Mr. King's story, most would go insane.
Another issue dealt with masterfully here is how to pace yourself. If you are able to estimate how long an event might last, you could ration your energy and supplies to get you to that point. But when you have no clue, this becomes impossible. Is it a matter of hours, days or even years? You can't live minute-to-minute that way. You'll exhaust yourself and fall pray to an otherwise avoidable mistake. In the story, the question of whether or not one should leave the sanctuary of the store continuously arises. The place is an excellent location in which to hole up: you have plenty of supplies and, after a certain amount of work, it's reasonably secure. It won't last forever, though. Either your supplies or patience will run out. If only you know how long until it might be over. This is a key question for everyone who faces a TEotWaWKI event. It drives everything from when to seek shelter to when to abandon it. The tragic ending of the movie version – one of the few places where it differs from the short story – clearly demonstrates the problem of pacing one's self.
Finally, and most importantly, is the question of leadership. As demonstrated in Lucifer's Hammer, you cannot avoid this issue. Somebody will become alpha, it's just a question of who. It's in your best interest to ensure that this person is on your side. There are two characters in The Mist who step up to fill the leadership void, none of whom I'd want to be my alpha. The first, Brent Norton, is a man who couldn't redraw his mental map. He refused to believe in the danger that his eyes plainly told him existed. As a result, he lead several people to their deaths in a misguided attempt to seek help. The second, Mrs. Carmody, clearly saw that the events matched her world view: God is punishing us for our sins. I do not believe you could have done anything about the first, Brent was dead set on his path. The religious nut, however, would not have had an audience to sway to her point of view if someone else offered a viable alternative. If no one else is filling the void, you should step up.
Overall, I highly recommend this story, both in video and textual form. It is well written and acted. You will be entertained. It also clearly demonstrates lessons you need to learn should you be confronted with yet another end of the world scenario. Beware, though, of the fantastical nature of the harbinger of doom in this story. As something so different from real life experiences, I fear people will ignore any lessons it has to offer. If I could go back in time and warn the world about the impending zombie outbreak, I certainly wouldn't say a word about the undead. I would be ignored. Instead, I'd describe the zombies as infected, perhaps rabid, humans who have gone insane, leading them to murderous acts. This, at least, is something people back then could have grasped and dealt with.