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Literature / The Langoliers

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"Denver Center, this is American Pride Flight 29, do you read me? Over..."

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.


Adapted into a two-part 1995 Mini Series on ABC, directed by Tom Holland Director (the one of Fright Night and Child's Play fame, not the one of MCU Spider-Man fame) and 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. At one point, Toomy almost begins to realize what is really going on when he imagines the voice of his mother saying that the "whole world is gone except for you and the people who were on that plane", only for his father's voice to overcome that and reinforce the Langolier paranoia.
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  • Accidental Child-Killer Backstory: Nick Hopewell volunteers for a certain death task that must be performed — because, as a younger man, he accidentally shot some children who were throwing potatoes painted grey that he mistook for grenades.
  • Actor Allusion: Few people are better qualified to exposit about time travel than Dean Stockwell.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Without the benefit of a third-person omniscient narrator, the film can't do a very good job of describing the interplay between Dinah and Toomy or the nature of the Langoliers, and the resulting story makes a lot less sense than its source material.
  • 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.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Toomy calls the Langoliers "purpose personified".
  • The Atoner: Nick strives to be a better person than he has been and even uses the phrase “atone”. He eventually volunteers for a task that means certain death to atone for accidentally killing children.
  • Ax-Crazy: By the time Toomy finally snaps and goes mad, he's trying to murder everyone else, assuming they are Langoliers. Best exemplified in the miniseries where he's grinning in delirium.
  • Badass Bookworm: Albert is just a music student, bespectacled, and generally isn't much to look at. He can also do a fair whack of damage with a toaster.
  • 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?"
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Craig Toomy and the Langoliers are this. However, both are only trouble due to their own accords- Toomy is mentally ill and thus it’s clear he’s not entirely evil, and the Langoliers are just doing their job by devouring the past- with other people there, they just assume they’re part of the past.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Our heroes return to their own dimension. However, not everyone made it back. At least four people died before the movie was resolved, Dinah among them. Nonetheless, the ending plays out cheerily as the survivors celebrate their rightful place in the timeline.
  • Black Dude Dies First: In the TV movie, the sole black man in the group of survivors is the first on-screen death we see (not counting the passengers who got vaporized off-screen at the start, and Dinah, who was mortally wounded before him but didn't die until after he did). 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 Trope in that the knife has punctured a lung, at least in the book.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: In the miniseries, Dinah briefly affects an English accent when she repeats a hushed conversation between Nick and Brian, demonstrating her hyper-acute sense of hearing. Amusingly, it's actually Fake American Kate Maberly's native accent.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The story appears to be this in the grand scheme of Stephen King's multiverse. Not only is it devoid of any references to his other works, but the rules it establishes regarding time travel are irrefutably contradicted by 11/22/63, a story that has much more direct ties to his other works.
  • Casting Gag: Of course Dean Stockwell would know a thing or two about time travel.
  • 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 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. Jenkins lampshades this but noted it’s no stranger odds than a few well known baseball records.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: If Flight 29 had continued to Boston, Toomey would likely not have gone on a rampage, thus avoiding much of the conflict. Also, since Boston is further west than Bangor, the passengers would have had longer to figure out what do about their situation.
    • Unlike many examples of this trope, there were very good reasons for the flight to divert to Bangor, as Brian, a professional pilot and familiar with the airports in question, explains to his passengers (and thus the reader). Also, Toomey was breaking down before even boarding Flight 29. There would have been something that set him off regardless.
  • Creator Cameo: In the adaptation, Stephen King briefly appears as an executive in Toomy's imaginary Boston meeting.
  • Death of a Child: Dinah is stabbed in the chest by Toomey, and eventually succumbs to her injuries.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • "Eureka!" Moment: As the plane prepares to return through a time rift, Bob can't shake the feeling something is wrong. He mulls over it, thinking of his past works, including a book with the word "sleeping" in the title and how it got good reviews and...then it hits him how the one thing every one of the passengers left behind had in common was that they were all asleep when the plane hit the rift the first time.
  • Exposition Intuition: The Author Avatar character, played by Dean Stockwell, manages to guess exactly what's happening just by a deserted airport with stale food. Oh, did we mention this guessing includes that they've traveled into the past by going through a circular rainbow, that traveling into the past melts everyone who's not asleep, and that as soon as a time period becomes the past it's devoured by a swarm of temporal monsters? And that they can use the bit of time-space inside their jet to fly back through the circular rainbow to get back to the future? And it works.
  • 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.
  • Fastest Gun in the West: Albert fantasizes about being a gunslinger in the Old West who is called "the fastest Hebrew west of the Mississippi".
  • Foreshadowing: When Craig describes the Langoliers, he says that "THEY WILL EAT YOU ALIVE! ALIVE AND SCREAMING!" They do just that to him when they show up.
  • 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.
  • Funny Background Event: In the novella, Albert forgets to bring his violin back on board the plane, thus letting it get eaten. In the miniseries, Laurel brings it back on board for him, but then he leaves it on the plane when they get back to Los Angeles.
  • Genre Savvy:
    • Discussed. As a mystery writer, Bob Jenkins provides a plausible analysis to Albert to explain how they all ended up on a seemingly abandoned plane in mid-flight by pitching a conspiracy scenario about a black ops social experiment. When Albert suggests that they take over the plane, Jenkins admits out that his scenario can only explain the state of the plane; he can't think of any way an outside agency could suppress any sign of life on the ground, which should be covered in electric lights visible through any possible cloud cover. The fact that the entire world can be demonstrated to be out of whack takes things beyond the pale, meaning rational deduction is meaningless;
      Jenkins: I'm the wrong person to ask, I'm afraid. It's too bad Larry Niven or John Varley isn't on board.
      Albert: Who are those guys?
      Jenkins: Science-fiction writers.
    • He's not giving himself or the universe enough credit, though. Once they get to Bangor and land, he finds more than enough consistent evidence to figure out the One Big Lie: between the tasteless food, odorless air, lack of reverberating sound and a bullet incapable of punching through a T-shirt, he's able to rationally deduce that the key to it all is entropy; they're in a world that has been used up and abandoned. In other words, they've somehow Time Traveled a short distance into the past, into an existence that the universe has abandoned for greener pastures. And if they don't find a way back fast, whatever happens to such dead worlds is going to happen to them.
  • Glasses Pull: In the mini-series, and done by a blind character, at that!
  • 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, and for a short time the survivors believe that they are still in the past. 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.
  • In the Doldrums: The world between seconds where the survivors end up. The resulting dead world acts in this manner, but it is fated to be eaten by Eldritch Abominations.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Each chapter is headed by sentences describing that chapter's highlights.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass: Craig Toomy is one of the sharpest, and not to mention loudest, examples in King's mythos. He's a tragic character, sure, being a severely schizophrenic victim of hideous parental abuse, but he's still a colossal asshole from the moment we meet 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—
  • Large Ham
    • Toomy is one of the most enjoyable characters in the film because of it, not least because his facial expressions make him look like he's doing an Ernest P. Worrell impression.
    • Meanwhile, Dean Stockwell takes some serious cues from the William Shatner school of acting. Given that his character, Robert Jenkins, is more than a bit of a ham even in the novella, it's a bit less egregious than Bronson Pinchot's infamous performance above.
    • Willem Dafoe's audiobook version is hammy in the way only Willem Dafoe can be hammy. On more than one occasion, the man successfully out-hams the miniseries, which is no small feat.
  • 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 story's Clock Roaches are the Langoliers; while they are usually called that for convenience, the actual Langoliers are boogeymen from Craig Toomy's childhood who ate people who wasted time, and Craig identifies the literal time-eating monsters with them.
  • 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 the rest of the group won't listen to her because 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...
  • Oh, Crap!: Bob's reaction when Brian announces that he's going to try flying through the time rip. Which, since everyone on board is awake, would have had the effect of vaporizing everyone and leaving the now-empty plane to run out of fuel right over downtown Los Angeles. Fortunately, he's able to point this out in time.
    • Based on Craig Toomy's first major scene, the audience just KNOWS he's going to go ballistic when Brian diverts the flight to Bangor.
    • Brian is visibly freaking out when he can't contact anybody on the radio, including the Air Force. Enough that Nick has to snap him out of it by reminding him of his responsibility as a pilot.
  • 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.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Nick briefly considers outright killing Craig Toomy in cold blood as the man lies on the floor, already dying of a crushed skull. After the damage Craig has inflicted on everyone by that point, it's not entirely unreasonable. At the same time, he considers it a mercy killing and better than Toomy deserves.
  • Percussive Maintenance: Captain Engle does this to the radio in the plane when he can't reach anyone else. Of course it doesn't work, given the circumstances, but it's the thought that counts.
  • Posthumous Character: Probably Dinah’s aunt, who is among those who are gone when Dinah and the others wake up and never appeared in person before that. Averted in the movie where she gets a few seconds of screen time and one line of dialogue, talking to Dinah before takeoff.
  • Pragmatic Hero: Nick is firmly of this bent, being an overall affable chap capable of intense brutality when it means getting the job done. It's suiting of a soldier turned government hitman.
  • Psycho Party Member: Toomy, who was on the edge of a breakdown even before he ended up in the past.
  • 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. Craig Toomy's mental stability does not last long.
  • Seeing Through Another's Eyes: Dinah can do this at times. Unfortunately, she at least once gets stuck with Toomy's delusional view of what's around him.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Many, including prominent ones to The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek: The Original Series.
  • 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.
  • Species Title: Antagonist Title for the Clock Roaches, technically, but they don't really have a known species name, that's just what the characters call them. The actual Langoliers are boogeymen from Craig Toomy's childhood who ate people who wasted time, and Craig identifies the literal time-eating monsters with them.
  • "Stuck at the Airport" Plot: The only things keeping this flight grounded is a lack of clearance from Air Traffic Control and a lack of fuel.
  • 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.
  • 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. The guy is a complete danger to everyone else and grossly unpleasant, but is driven by mental torment rather than true, deliberate malice.
  • Waif Prophet: Dinah is a small, thin girl with a good knack for understanding and predicting things.
  • "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.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Despite being a Jerkass, Craig Toomy doesn't want to hurt anyone, not really, but extreme pressure coupled with obviously severe mental illness eventually cause him to violently snap and lose his mind entirely.
  • 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.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: A fiction writer gives an anlysis of the situation (everyone waking up on an abondoned plane in mid-air) from the perspective of a mystery thriller. However, he immediately admits that it's a bunk theory, because there are still too many discrepancies. He realizes that they're really in a science fiction story, and later puts forth a different, correct theory on what happened to them.
  • "YEAH!" Shot
    • The novella ended with a literary version.
    • The end of the TV movie.