Saturday, August 3, 2013

The unexpected creepiness of Cousin Balki

Summer is winding down and with it summer reading lists. I'm sure in the next few weeks, students across the country will scramble to finish their reading lists or at least read the Sparknotes version (or whatever lame way kids are not reading these days). This was never me when I was in school. I usually had my reading list done by the end of the first month of vacation and the librarian would give me more books to read. I'm a school nerd and proud of it.

This is how I came to read my first Stephen King novel. I was done with my summer reading and was looking for something else since I'm an inside kid. My brother had been reading Stephen King for awhile and I'm pretty sure that I took the book from his room (probably without his permission). My first Stephen King novel was Christine. I read it in a few days and was totally hooked. I moved from Christine to Carrie to IT and never looked back. That summer, I also "discovered" the collection Different Seasons that featured the story "The Body". I had seen Stand By Me several times already (I was going through a Corey and Kiefer phase at the time too) and didn't realize it was a short story first. My favorite King novel is The Stand. I read it for the first time my freshmen year in high school. I've probably read it at least a dozen times since. This is no small feat given that it's an enormous story and one of his longest novels. The miniseries is my favorite miniseries and I'll watch it anytime it's on. I  read his newest novel, Joyland, back in June and enjoyed it. Definitely a good summer read.

I was thinking about Stephen King this week while traveling for work. Specifically, I was thinking about a short story called "The Langoliers". This story appears in the collection Four Past Midnight and was made into an incredibly cheesy tv movie starring a who's who of 90's tv stars: Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap, Patricia Wettig from Thirtysomething, and my favorite, Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers. Yes, Cousin Balki was in a Stephen King movie. Cousin Balki goes a little crazy and is not very Balki-like. I remember finding him super creepy when I first saw it and wondered if he was trying to shed the Cousin Balki image by playing a super creepo.

Anyway, the story is about a red-eye flight from LA to Boston that goes awry. One of the passengers, a young blind girl (who is also psychic) wakes up to find all but herself and nine other passengers on the plane. Everyone, including the pilots, are gone. The plane is on autopilot. There just happens to be a pilot on the plane (played in the movie by David Morse, a favorite actor of mine) and e lands them in Bangor, Maine and things get creepier and creepier from there. If you're a fan of Stephen King novels you know that nothing good ever happens in Maine. The airport is deserted, people start hearing strange noises, and one of the group, Mr. Toomey, goes bananas. The group figures out that they journeyed through some type of "time rip" and that caused everyone to disappear and eventually will mean they will disappear too. Schemes are hatched, Langoliers approach (because of crazy Mr. Toomey), and heroes are sacrificed. You should really just read the story or watch the movie to get the full plot. There's a lot going on here and summarizing it is tough.

I've been traveling for work since 2004 (on and off) so I've spent a lot of time in airports. If I were to calculate the total time I've spent in airports since 2004, I would be a sad person. I'm sure it would equate to thousands of hours spent doing very little. Airports are the perfect place to waste time because you can't really go anywhere once you're beyond security. Setting any kind of fantasy or horror story at an airport makes absolute sense to me. On my trip this week, I had to go to Lake Elsinore, CA. Lake Elsinore is between LA and San Diego and both of those airports are farther away than I wanted to drive. So I booked my flight into Ontario International Airport (in California not Canada). It's a pretty small airport and was totally as it should be when I got in on Sunday. There were people around and the TGIFriday's was open. It's like Oakland Airport's less gritty twin.

On Tuesday, my training ended at 3:30 so I was in good shape to get to the airport on time to return the car and have a quick dinner (since I was getting into Phoenix after 9 pm). It takes about 40 minutes to get to Ontario. There was no traffic so I made good time and made it to the airport a little before 5. This is when things started to get weird. There was no one, not even airline staff, anywhere in the ticketing area. There were no other passengers that I could see. The only noise was the whir of the machines at the security line. When I made it upstairs to security there were two other passengers and six TSA agents. I don't even think it took 5 minutes to go through security (unheard of I know). Once I got through security, the gates were empty too. My first thought was that maybe things opened up after 5 for evening flights or that I had hit a lull in arrivals. I just couldn't figure out why there was no noise. It was eerie and unsettling. The Coffee Bean was closed - devastating. Even when I've been the first person in for an early flight or on the last flight of the night to arrive, there's always noise at the airport. There was nothing.

So naturally, being me, I immediately thought of "The Langoliers" (both the story and the movie). The airport reminded me of the scenes after the group lands in Maine and there was no one and no noise or anything. It was just eerie. I didn't even see where the other two passengers went after we got through security. And it seemed like the TSA agents had been trained to be super quiet because they weren't even making noise. I also happened to be taking a red-eye from Phoenix to Charlotte that evening so clearly I was living the plot of this story. Ontario was already in the time rip and I would follow suit once I got to Phoenix. In the next two hours, I would also have to find a blind psychic, Cousin Balki (because someone needs to go crazy and it's not me), the brainy guy from Quantum Leap, and David Morse. David Morse would also be able to fly a plane and that's how we'd get to Phoenix for the rest of the plot to play out correctly.

Because this is how life works.

What really went down is this: everything in this airport closes at 4 pm except Round Table Pizza, the bar, and the gift shop (it closes at 6 pm). An entire airport closes down its services at 4 pm. I totally support airports not opening everything at 5:30 am or super late into the night because there aren't that many people but 4 pm? That just seems weird especially given that by 5:45ish people finally started to arrive and the airport went back to feeling like an actual airport. So instead of finding my group of survivors or dealing with creepo Cousin Balki, I read my book (The Hangman's Daughter), had some expensive pizza, and continued on my way to Phoenix and Charlotte and then home to DC.

And this is why Stephen King is a genius. I haven't read this story or seen the movie in years but I immediately conjured up images and plot points from this story. In many of his stories, it's the mundane or the ordinary person or object that causes the most terror for the characters and the readers. Most of his villains are not the monsters of fantasy (although he's got some good ones - Pennywise is terrifying) but ourselves. Or at least the way our mind processes what's happening around us or gives into the events of the story. Many of my favorites, The Stand, Carrie, Christine, Misery, play into that psychological scare which to me is better than a gory, monster filled horror story. The reality of these stories is what is truly terrifying.

And this is my brain on jet lag. Welcome to my world.

Because I can't help myself - more Stephen King fun!

Bronson Pinchot photo
Other photos by me.

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