(Storm of the Century)
Does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few? Is there always at least one “right” decision we can choose and are we always wrong if we don’t figure out what that decision is and choose it?
I hope you don’t expect me to know these answers. I don’t, and I don’t think that the answers are even the same in one scenario as they are in the next scenario. But these are some of the questions that Storm of the Century asks us.
I don’t think Stephen King knows the answers either. The setup and debate here are actually pretty interesting. Mike Anderson is pretty clearly set up to be both the protagonist and the town’s One Righteous Man. The Guy Who Won’t Give In. The man who won’t negotiate with terrorists, if you like. And usually, a story protagonist who’s also the One Righteous Man — or even just a righteous man — will be the hero who saves the day and stops whatever bad thing is happening. I mean, it’s not the only outcome — maybe he only manages to partially save it, so that something important is still lost. In a more tragic tale, maybe he doesn’t save the day, even though he opposes the villains as hard as he can. Maybe he even attempts at the cost of his own life but fails.
And maybe there’s another kind of story, too — one where the One Righteous Man protagonist learns that maybe he’s not so special after all, not so good after all. Or that other people are just as righteous. Or both.
But this isn’t really any of that. There’s a villain in this story, sure, but everyone else in the town is just as opposed to Andre Linoge as Mike is. Linoge is basically a demon or a monster — no one was ever cheering for him to begin with. No one even wants to use his evilness for nefarious purposes. They all just want him to go away and leave them alone. And yet, when the lobsters hit the pot, when the water’s really started to boil, the conflict here is Mike… against the rest of the town. Not Mike against the villain. They’re all against the villain, really. The question is whether the best way to get rid of the villain is by fighting him or acquiescing to his demands. And it’s not a question with an easy answer. Or maybe it is a question with an easy answer and I just don’t like it. I’ve considered that too.
Oh sure, the book certainly reveals that some of the people we meet in the book are people who have done bad things, and they’ve kept their mouths shut about them too. Some of them don’t actually seem that bad to me — I don’t care who’s selling pot, and I certainly don’t care who’s had an abortion — but we get enough description of the culture of the time and place in this story to understand that both those things are going to bother a lot of our townspeople. And the abortion girl also ends up murdering her boyfriend later, so there’s that. Though it wasn’t really her fault. It’s complicated.
Speaking of the time and place, this is Little Tall Island, the same place where Dolores Claiborne lived. She’s even mentioned (in the screenplay, at least, I’m not sure if that line made it to the movie or not). This is not vital information for the story, you won’t have any problems understanding the plot if you’ve never read Dolores Claiborne. But if you have, you maybe already have more of a grasp on what the population on this island is like, how they speak, and how they function as a group.
Anyway, other folks in the town are revealed to have secrets like burning down a factory, putting out a man’s eye in what seems to have been a gay-bashing incident, and leaving a mom to die alone while visiting a sex worker. Mike has a secret too — he cheated on a chemistry test in college — but his seems pretty small beans compared with the rest. The town as a whole probably wouldn’t care at all, and the revelation is unlikely to have any real effect on his life, even if news of it left the town and reached the mainland. Actually, people there would probably care even less. Otherwise, Mike Anderson is basically a boy scout. And if you watch the movie, Tim Daly plays a fresh-faced good guy to convincing effect here.
There’s quite a lot going on in this town. The titular storm of the century brings in not just snow and wind, but also Andre Linoge. Linoge starts off seeming like your basic psycho murderer, but it becomes pretty clear that while that’s bad, Linoge is actually worse. Turns out, Linoge can cause suicides. And prompt other people to murder. And make them float or fly. And make them stick to walls, up off of the floor. And make a bunch of kids pass out, unable to be awakened. Oh, and his last name is an anagram for Legion. You get the idea.
And when all this is established and the storm is in full swing, we get the real conflict of the story. Linoge is evil and all, but he’s not actually immortal. He’s got a longer lifeline than we do, but he’s still running out of it. And what he wants is a kid who can be his… apprentice? Heir? Both, I guess. He can kill the townspeople, and I guess he can kill the children too, but apparently, he can’t just steal one. So the town has to agree to do it, and they also have to choose. Will they give him a child, and if so, which one? If they do, he’ll go away. If not, he’ll basically make them all disappear — the island will become the modern age’s lost colony of Roanoke. And while they may not be findable, they’ll probably all be dead, including the children. Although, the possibility of something worse than death — but just as permanent — is left open.
So, now we come down to it. Most of the town is for it. They’re scared to death, they’ve already had a bunch of losses, they absolutely believe that Linoge can do what he says he can do, and they’d rather lose one child — who isn’t going to be killed, after all, in fact, is going to live a remarkably long time, like Linoge himself — than have everyone die, including the children.
Except for Mike. Mike does not negotiate with terrorists, remember. He wants to defy Linoge, stand firm, and hope that he just… blows away. Like the storm will, sooner or later.
You know, when I type it out like that, it really does seem that the townspeople are right and Mike is wrong. I’m condensing the argument here, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating each of the positions here. It sort of comes down to whether you believe Linoge can do as he threatens, whether it’s possible to outlast him, and, even if he can do those things, and he can’t be outlasted, whether it’s better – nobler, perhaps, or maybe better for the world as a whole if he doesn’t get a protege to pass his work onto – to deny him, even if that means that all of them die.
In a different kind of story, a hero might decide to sacrifice his own life if that meant denying Linoge a protege and keeping the children, including his child, safe. And Mike would probably be willing to do that if it came down to it. The problem is, if we want to do that here, we need a whole damn town of heroes. And we and they all know — for sure, now, though they probably at least suspected it before — that this is not that town. Even Mike’s wife and mother of his child says that they’d better go along with what Linoge wants, and even makes an argument that if the other children are up for Linoge’s lottery, theirs better be too — they are part of the town, after all. Mike’s position on this still feels right to me, honestly. But I honestly can’t say that I don’t understand how the townspeople came to the conclusion they did. I don’t actually know if it really matters that some of them aren’t honorable people, or that Mike has fewer and less serious skeletons in his closet than they do. The idea that keeping the rest of them alive in exchange for one child — who won’t be killed either — would be better than all of them dying, is a reasonable position. And as a reader, you can believe that if they’d decided to stand and be true — something King likes to say and have his characters do — they’d have defeated him somehow or outlasted him. But they have no reason to know that, and you don’t either… even viewed in the context of King stories, that doesn’t always work for every character. I feel for Mike. I agree with Mike. But the rest of the town isn’t exactly wrong, they’re just operating with a moral code that’s more utilitarian, which is a valid viewpoint.
Mike never agrees or consents to any of this. He doesn’t stop it either, but he probably can’t. We don’t really need to see the town turn on him or forcibly restrain him throughout. It’s pretty clear they would, if they had to — he can’t really win. He does what he can do, which is basically just maintain his objection. And of course, it’s his wife who draws the black ball, meaning that it’s his son who will be turned over to Linoge.
It’s possible that Linoge came for Mike’s son the whole time, in fact. Mike’s son is marked — he has a birthmark on his nose that his parents and Linoge refer to as a “fairy saddle”. Linoge interacts with Mike’s son early on and seems to single him out later. He says he’ll take whichever kid they want to give him — but he also gave them the stones that they used to choose which kid goes. Did he orchestrate it this way? The screenplay makes it clear that it’s an inference you can make — but it’s never going to be confirmed, one way or another. There’s just enough there to make you consider it.
Post-storm, and post-loss, Mike actually tries for a while to give it a go with his wife and stay on the island. That kind of surprises me too, I was expecting him to leave immediately, maybe even try to hunt down Linoge. I think this is also kind of a human thing to do, though. His life was living on this island. His life was his marriage. His life was his child. He lost one of those things. It’s probably logical he’d at least try to hang on to the rest. He can’t do it though. Divorces his wife. Takes off to live on the Pacific coast instead of the Atlantic coast. He keeps in touch with the island but never wants to go there again. We learn a few things he’s learned about how the islanders, including his ex-wife, are doing now. Then he runs into them — Linoge and his son. Seemingly, this is just a random coincidence, like moving to Utah ten years ago and one day going to the grocery store and running into someone you knew from high school back in Illinois. His son is 14ish now, and Linoge looks older too. Mike tries to run after them, calls after his son — and the son turns and hisses at him. Exposes sharpened teeth and eyes that turn black and red. Mike backs off, and they leave.
I read the screenplay for this blog. According to King, this is a story that wanted to be a screenplay from the beginning, so it was always written as a screenplay — there’s no traditional novel. But the screenplay was published as a novel, I think shortly before the movie aired on television. The movie isn’t on streaming anywhere now, who knows why. But I’m pretty sure I watched it when it aired. I don’t remember it making a huge impression on me at the time, but the screenplay grabbed me, and I’d like to watch it again if I get the chance. I don’t think the questions King asks in this story are unique, but I do think he asked them in an interesting manner, and I like that he doesn’t really insist that there’s one right answer. Where ever you happen to fall on those questions instinctively, he gives you what you need to realize that you could be right… but you know, you might also be wrong. And either way, life is going to make you pay, sometimes more than you can actually afford.