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Literature: The Langoliers

Imagine waking up on a plane and discovering that it, along with some of its passengers, had traveled... somewhere else. A place with no other people, no other living things, a place where sounds are dulled, there are no odors, nothing seems to work, and even time seems to be winding down. And you don't know if you'll be able to get home. Welcome to the past. The cleanup crew will be here soon. Pray you aren't here when they arrive....

The Langoliers is a novella by Stephen King, published in the anthology Four Past Midnight in 1990. It tells the tale of a handful of passengers on a cross-country redeye flight who wake to discover that the flight crew and most of their fellow passengers have vanished. They are unable to contact ground control, and they see only darkness below them. After making an emergency landing in Bangor, they soon discover the chilling truth, and must find a way to escape the approaching sounds that may spell their doom while dealing with one of their fellow passengers, who is having a psychotic breakdown.

The novella was adapted into a two-part TV movie in 1995, starring Kate Maberly, Kimber Riddle, Patricia Wettig, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Frankie Faison, Baxter Harris, Dean Stockwell, David Morse, Christopher Collet and Bronson Pinchot.

The Langoliers provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Toomy's father is strongly implied to be a violent narcissist who was living vicariously through his son. In the novella, it's also hinted that he drove his alcoholic wife to insanity.
  • Arc Words: SHOOTING STARS ONLY.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Toomy. His death is just tragic and terrifying, made even more tragic that the moment he got on that plane, (or, perhaps the moment he was forced into the job by his father's demands, or one could argue the moment he was born) he was doomed. Even though Toomy stabbed her, Dinah still feels pity for him when she sends him to his death.
  • The Atoner: Nick. He eventually volunteers for a task that means certain death to atone for accidentally killing children.
  • The Bait: The only reason Toomy's allowed to live until the end (at Dinah's request, whom he had fatally wounded after she tried to help him): so he can be Langolier-bait and save the rest from being devoured and they can escape. Rather darkly, the novella implies that not only is this the only reason he survived that long, it's the only reason he ever existed in the first place.
  • The B Grade: Part of Toomy's Freudian Excuse for flipping out over not landing in Boston as planned is the relentless pressure to succeed that shaped his childhood. His father scolded him if he got an A-, and grounded him for a week if he got a B. In the film, we see his father in a flashback roaring at him about his grade: "'B'! 'B' IS FOR BUM! DO YOU WANT TO SWEEP THE STREETS?"
  • Black Dude Dies First: In the TV movie, the sole black man in the group of survivors dies first. His race was not mentioned in the novella. However, he wears a Red Shirt.
  • Blind Seer: Dinah, who was on her way to have surgery to correct her blindness, is the first to hear Something Horrible approaching, and also uses psychic powers to divert a psychotic passenger into their path.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Dinah, after Toomy stabs her in the chest with a butcher knife. Justified in that the knife has punctured a lung, at least in the book.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: At the airport, Bob Jenkins asks a cigarette from Bethany, though he quit ten years ago, saying: "This seems like an excellent time to renew acquaintances with old habits."
  • Clock Roaches: The eponymous Langoliers, whose job is to tidy things up.
    (Bob is watching the Langoliers eat up the entire airport)
    Bob Jenkins: Now we know, don't we?
    Laurel Stevenson: Know what? We know what?
    Bob Jenkins: We know what happens to today when it becomes yesterday. It waits for them. It waits for them, the timekeepers of eternity. Always following them behind, cleaning up the mess in the most efficient way possible: by eating it!
  • Contrived Coincidence: A pilot being among the group - if these guys didn't have a pilot it would have been a real short story.
  • Disability Superpower: Dinah is able to hear the approaching Langoliers before anyone else does, leading to Not Now, Kiddo, below. She is also able to psychically "see" through the eyes of others, and use a sort of blind-sense to be aware of the presence or absence of others around her.
  • Education Mama: Toomy's father was a male version.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Langoliers. The Happy Fun Timey Wimey Balls they see are just A Form You Are Comfortable With.
  • Eldritch Location: The Airport in Maine.
  • Empty Piles of Clothing: A strange version: the disappeared passengers from the plane leave behind watches, glasses, jewels, even surgical pins — but not clothes. Bob Jenkins lampshades this, saying: "What was taken and what was left behind [...] doesn't seem to have a lot of rhyme or reason to it."
  • Exposition Intuition: The Author Avatar character manages to completely guess everything that's happening with perfect accuracy.
  • Extreme Omnivore: The Langoliers eat the past. Can't get much more extreme than that. In the process they also eat a hillside, an airport, a runway, and Craig Toomy.
  • Facial Horror: In the novella, Albert's toaster attack on Toomy leaves the latter's face pretty well obliterated, to the point that it's a wonder he lived.
  • Foreshadowing: "THEY WILL EAT YOU ALIVE! ALIVE AND SCREAMING!"
  • Freudian Excuse: Toomy's childhood. As mentioned, his father was cruel and demanding. After he died, things didn't get better, because Toomy's mother was an alcoholic, who, for example, on his tenth birthday put a kitchen match between two of his toes and lit it while singing "Happy Birthday to You". She considered this good fun.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: The scene between Toomy and the hallucination of his father in the movie.
  • Hate Sink: Pretty much the point of Toomy; without him, we wouldn't really have an antagonist.
  • Hope Spot: Inverted. After they return through the rip, the world is still deserted, but once they land in Los Angeles, the vibrancy and fidelity of their surroundings informs them that they have traveled into the future and thus are now waiting for the present to catch up to them as opposed to it leaving them behind.
  • I Have No Son: Before Nick sacrifices his life he asks Laurel to find his father, and tell him that he tried his best to atone for the things he did. He says that she has to be persistent, because his father "tends to turn away and curse loudly when he hears my name. The old I-have-no-son bit."
  • Improbable Weapon User: Albert with a toaster in a tablecloth.
  • Improvised Weapon
    • Round 1: Cased violin. Round 2: Toaster in a tablecloth. Albert: 2, plus several thousand for style; Toomy: 0, minus several billion for getting eaten afterwards.
    • Nick briefly considers using ordinary coins as a makeshift set of brass knuckles.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted with Dinah.
  • In the Doldrums: The world between seconds where the survivors end up.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described
  • It Can Think: The Langoliers actively tear up the runway to try and slow down the escaping plane. They also seem to take sadistic joy in watching Toomy beg for his life before they eat him.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Nick, he's rough when it comes to getting the job done and the other passengers call him out on his harsh treatment of Jerkass Woobie Toomy, but he is one of the first adults to believe Dinah when she hears the Langoliers coming.
  • Just One Second Out of Sync
    • Inverted here, as the characters find themselves an unknown amount of time in the relative past, in a "used-up" version of the world.
    • The reverse happens when they find themselves slightly in the future. However, they only need to wait a little for time to catch up to them.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Craig Toomy, who has possibly the funniest last thought ever, under the circumstances:
    Toomy: How can their little legs be fast? They don't have any le—
  • Kill the Cutie: Poor Dinah.
  • Large Ham
    • Toomy is one of the most enjoyable characters in the film because of it, while his facials look like they're doing an Ernest P. Worrell impression.
    Toomy: I didn't make any money for you! I didn't MAKE ANY MONEY FOR YOU!! I LOOOOOST MONEY FOR YOU!!! AND I DID IT DELIBERATELY! I DID IT DELIBERATELY! I DID IT DELIBERATELY! EEYAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
    • Dean Stockwell as the Mystery writer. He actually manages to out-ham William Shatner with his dramatic pauses.
  • Locked Room Mystery: Bob Jenkins initially treats the disappearance of their fellow passengers as this.
  • More Teeth than the Osmond Family: The Langoliers are almost entirely mouth, with three rows of teeth in their three jaws. In the movie, these rows also spin in alternative directions, giving them the appearance of hungry excavation drills or evil Pac-Man clones.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Bob Jenkins, who probably has enough material for a lifetime of scary stories afterwards.
  • Mr. Exposition: Bob Jenkins. This isn't the first time his actor has played Mr. Exposition, either.
  • Mythology Gag: In the novella, Bob Jenkins mentions the Shop (a mysterious organization also connected with the events of Firestarter) as a potential cause of their Ontological Mystery.
  • Never Trust a Title: The name of the story implies that the monsters which appear in the story are themselves Langoliers, whereas in fact they just have some parallels with the made-up boogeymen of Craig Toomy's childhood and neither their appearance nor their purpose matches.
  • Noodle Incident: A dramatic example. Nick asks Laurel to find his father, and tell him that he tried his best "to atone for the day behind the church in Belfast" and his father has to listen because of the time he brought the daisies (not to him). We find out what Nick did behind the church — he accidentally shot three boys, mistaking them for terrorists — but it's not revealed what was with the daisies.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A few examples:
    • Before the plane even passes through the heavy cloud cover obscuring the world below, several characters indicate very strongly that they're terrified of what might or might not be below. the latter comes true in a big way later on.
    • When they wake up at first in the middle of the night, there are no clouds below them, thus allowing them to see the dark, lifeless landscape below.
    • "What the hell is making that weird crunching noise over the horizon?!"
    • That horrible, eye-watering, soul-sucking void left behind after the Langoliers eat the past.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Subverted. Dinah hears the Langoliers coming before everybody else, but she thinks that grownups don't believe children, especially blind girls. However, they believe her pretty fast. They even muse that as she's blind, she probably has really good hearing.
  • Now Do It Again Backwards: The survivors determine that they must fly back though the time rip to get home. But there's a problem...
  • Ontological Mystery: Finding out where you are is a bit hard when you aren't anywhere. Particularly present in the novella, where most of the story is spent puzzling out the existential mystery of the past.
  • Psycho Party Member: Toomy, who was on the edge of a breakdown even before he ended up in the past.
  • Rant Inducing Slight: Toomy couldn't care less about almost everyone (including the pilots) vanishing or them being trapped in a dead dimension, but if you dare suggest he's going to be late for his meeting in Boston he will flip out on you like you wouldn't believe.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: This miniseries is essentially "The Odyssey of Flight 33" under a Stephen King filter (which emphasises the Timey-Wimey Ball nature of the whole ordeal).
  • Red Herring: The guy with the black beard. Eleven people survive the trip. One spends the the entire book sleeping in the back of the plane. He wakes up, briefly, and then goes back to sleep. You keep expecting him to do something, but no, that's it. His purpose is to remind Bob Jenkins that they must be asleep to survive the trip back through the time rip. (Rudy Warwick covers this role in the TV adaption, as he retreats to the coach section to sleep while everyone else is in First Class.)
  • Sanity Slippage: Discovering you've lost everything, when you've been made obsessed with success, and are going to Boston to explain this to your superiors, only to wind up trapped in a past being eaten by monsters, does this to a person.
  • Serious Business: "I have a meeting in Boston at NINE O'CLOCK!" This is so important to Toomy that he snaps and is willing to try to kill several passengers to make his meeting on time.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: Nick once shot three boys behind a church in Belfast, because they had been throwing potatoes painted dark gray to look like grenades.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: The guy with the black beard.
  • Someone Has to Die: Good news: They should be able to escape by flying back through the time rip. Bad news: If they're awake when they go through, they'll vanish — and after seeing the past get eaten by Clock Roaches, none of them are particularly inclined towards sleep. Good news: If they lower the cabin pressure, they'll all fall unconscious and make it through unharmed. Bad news: Someone has to stay awake to restore the cabin pressure so they'll wake up on the other side.
  • Talk to the Fist: Nick really doesn't have time to listen to Toomy yammering on about how important his meeting is and how much he forbids the plane to make any sort of unscheduled stop at all. No, not even if most of the people on the plane including the flight crew have mysteriously vanished.
  • There Was a Door: Double Subverted. Right before Nick and Brian kick down the door to the cockpit, Bethany muses on whether or not there's a key. Nick is caught completely off-guard by the question, before asking Brian the same thing. There isn't a key, but Nick compliments her for thinking of it.
  • Things That Go Bump in the Night: The Langoliers started off as a childhood boogeyman that Toomy's dad menaced him with, a hobgoblin that ate up lazy children. Adult Toomy makes the natural conclusion when the local Clock Roaches show up...
  • Time and Relative Dimensions in Space: The "nowhere at all" variant, as the passengers end up in a "used up" past.
  • Time Stands Still: See Above.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: Admittedly, up until the Langoliers show up, this story had an interesting take on time travel.
  • Totally Radical: Approximately 60% of Bethany Simms's dialogue is this.
  • Tragic Villain: Toomy, oh so very much.
  • Waif Prophet: Dinah
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Toomy. Again. (Yes, he is both The B Grade and the "Well Done, Son" Guy. Scary, isn't it?)
  • Would Hurt a Child: Toomy stabs Dinah in the chest, which eventually leads to her death. However, he was insane, and thought that Dinah isn't a real child but a Langolier in disguise.
  • Worst Aid: Dinah is stabbed in the chest with a butcher knife. Then they pull it out.note  Given the nature of her injuries, though, that wouldn't have necessarily have saved her life, but it would have at least made it more likely she would have survived. To be fair, after they take it out they do try to stop the bleeding. Nick even comments that had they taken it out right away, she would have died already.
  • "YEAH!" Shot
    • The novella ended with a literary version.
    • The end of the TV movie.

Just After SunsetWorks By Stephen KingLisey's Story
LadylordLiterature of the 1990sThe Last Continent
Lake PlacidHorror FilmsThe Last Broadcast
The LandladyHorror LiteratureThe Last Apprentice

alternative title(s): The Langoliers
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