Stephen King Saturday: The Stand, part II

(Zoe is a local blogger who is working her way through the works of part-time Florida resident Stephen King. In anticipation of King’s forthcoming sequel to The Shining — Dr. Sleep — I’ve asked Zoe if I could start reprinting her ambitious King re-read here at Reading Tampa. She agreed! Thanks, Zoe. You can read the original posts at From Carrie to the Keyhole, or follow her running blog at Slow and Steady.)

This is part two of Zoe’s multi-part review of Stephen King’s The Stand. You can find part one here.

PRIDE

I’ll just come out and say right away that again, I see Nixon reflected in the theme of pride. For pride truly did come before that fall.

Pride is a major topic in The Stand, one that is made explicit as the book goes on. One of the most crucial events that takes place in Boulder occurs when Mother Abigail suddenly leaves the community, purportedly because she has sinned because of pride. She goes to the wilderness to find her way again. Although Mother Abigail may not seem to be particularly prideful, this incident brings the reader’s attention to this theme and its prevalence throughout the novel. After all, Captain Trips itself originated in a military lab as an experiment in biological warfare. Those who designed it felt that they had created a facility that could hold the disease without considering the consequences. In other words, the entire book hinges on this idea of pride and what happens after the fall.

As a reversal of pride as a sin, the character of Harold Lauter feels that pride is commendable, as he writes in his diary (Harold is yet another writer in the Stephen King universe, although in this book, he is not the only one since Franny also keeps a diary). His pride blinds him to the opportunities around him since he continues to harbor resentment from his life before the superflu. Furthermore, he does not take pride when he should: he does help the community in Boulder, but doesn’t see the value in what he is doing. Instead, his fall comes through Nadine Cross, who convinces him that a more fulfilling life lies with Flagg and that Harold should join her in traveling west. Before they go, though, Harold rigs a homemade bomb that kills several key figures in Boulder, ostensibly because of how they treated him in the past. His pride is not only a sin, it is dangerous. Flagg seems to sense the power that Harold could have, killing him before he reaches Las Vegas.

Nadine is also too prideful and has been her entire life because she senses that she is destined for a greater life with a man in power. Flagg has communicated with her in the past and she has long viewed herself as his intended one. She does not consider any others who could be involved and she is the only one whose first meeting with Mother Abigail is fractious. Nadine is punished for her pride since she is rendered catatonic after her first encounter with Flagg and commits suicide soon afterward.

Of course, Flagg has the most pride of all and this belief in his unassailable power brings his downfall. He feels that he can tame anyone, even Trashcan Man, who has long been a pyromaniac–one who becomes even more dangerous after bringing a nuclear weapon to Vegas as a gift for his master. It is Flagg’s ‘Hand of God,’ a sort of lightning bolt aimed at members of the Boulder Free Zone, that detonates the weapon and annihilates the civilization that he created.

What I found interesting about these depictions of pride and the harm that it caused was that even Flagg was granted this very human attribute. Unlike Sauron in Lord of the Rings–who is a distant, malevolent force–Flagg turns out to be as susceptible to human failings as the characters who follow him. It seems strange that this character of ultimate evil shares such a quality, or does this make him Satan? After all, Lucifer’s sin was pride, pride that he was more powerful than God, and for this he was cast down from heaven. The Stand could be read as a modern-day religious parable, especially since there are such clear factions that are drawn. Perhaps King is hearkening back to this story with Flagg and his penchant for pride.

RECLAIMING DISABILITY

If I think back to a common thread in many of the SK books that I read when I was younger, I think that I would say that many of them were about people who were considered losers. Usually, SK dispels this perception by providing insight into the ‘loser’s’ life, showing that there is a reason–often related to abuse or circumstances beyond that person’s control. The losers, then, are actually more complex than first glance might show.

Carrie was also one of these losers, but whatever sympathy was created for her quickly evaporated when she began her rampage. However, she’s one of the few. There aren’t really losers in ‘Salem’s Lot, even if there are abused people. Rage exposed some losers, but on the whole, there was a great deal of sympathy and acceptance between the hostages (with one exception, but that one exception was not a loser). These early books lack in such characters.

In The Stand, there are a few people who might fit into the category of losers, but several of them are ostracized in the pre-superflu society due to circumstances beyond their control: they are disabled in various ways. Nick Andros is deaf and dumb, Tom Cullen is ‘mildly retarded,’ and Trashcan Man suffers from a severe mental disorder. All three play pivotal roles in the book. Nick becomes a leader in the society, then a martyr when he is killed by Harold Lauter’s bomb. However, he continues to communicate with Tom Cullen, helping him when he needs assistance.

Flagg’s downfall comes from the two other characters: he cannot read the mind of Tom, instead he only sees the moon (Tom is convinced that almost all words are spelled M-O-O-N) and, as I mentioned earlier, it is Trashcan Man who brings the atomic weapon to Vegas. The characters in Boulder learn that Tom has knowledge that he can share when he is hypnotized and that he knows more than he shows. Therefore, he is the perfect spy. What appears to be a disability, then, is actually an asset, both for Tom and his community. Such reverence for characters who are handicapped becomes a common theme in King’s later novels, but this is a new idea in The Stand. I will also put forward that these characters most often appear in his quest-type novels and are integral to the quest succeeding.

RELIGION

As I mentioned, The Stand, in a way, is a modern religious parable, pitting the Good People against the Bad People. Mother Abigail does not keep her close tie to God secret; we also learn that Tom Cullen, when he is hypnotized, is ‘God’s Tom.’ Most in the Boulder group do not actively believe in God–in fact, their skepticism is made clear–but Mother Abigail considers such outlooks naive. In Las Vegas, Flagg is naturally the opposite and is often considered to be the Devil by those in Boulder (his ‘Hand of God,’ which actually kills him and destroys civilization, is some less-than-subtle irony). That these positions of good and evil are put forward so explicitly and seemingly without any conflict between them is something unusual in King’s works to date. I wonder, though, if he is saying that to create a true religion, one that can bond a society together, it is necessary to start all over.

Until this point, religion did not appear in a positive way in King’s books. In Carrie, her mother was overly zealous in her religious beliefs. In ‘Salem’s Lot, there is Father Callahan, but he must leave the church because he is bitten by Barlow, the head vampire (he will come back much later in the Dark Tower series). Religion was not powerful enough to stop Barlow or even stem his evil. These novels are not encouraging endorsements. ‘Children of the Corn’ is perhaps the most damning though, as the children of the village consider themselves to be doing the work of God, but in a complete perverse way.

Whether the Boulder people believe in God or not, they were all brought together by a force beyond them: they dreamed of Mother Abigail and sought her out. Perhaps, then, King is claiming that ideas of religion actually stem from encounters with the supernatural, such as the psychic force that Mother Abigail exudes. She is also able to ‘see’ Flagg (and he can ‘see’ some of her actions), although she does not know everything that he is doing. At one point, she refers to her gift as the ‘Shine.’ The esteem felt for her in Boulder suggests that she will become a sort of patron saint for the town as it builds and therefore could be the basis for a new–and perhaps more compassionate–version of the Christian faith.

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