Stephen King Saturday: The Stand

(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.)

INITIAL REACTION

The_Stand_UncutI finished The Stand! It was SUPER long. So long, in fact, that I think I will post observations for the next week or so about the book separately, otherwise I will have a blog post that is of Stand-like proportions. The good news is that it is actually the longest of all of his books (!), so yay. It, with only 10 fewer pages, comes awfully close, though.

My first observation is that I think Stephen King is afraid of cornfields. The rest of us fear the monstrous creatures that live in his imagination. He fears cornfields. In case you didn’t get that vibe from “Children of the Corn,” it is also prominently featured in The Stand, where Randall Flagg faffs around in Nebraskan cornfields, scaring the Good People. Seriously, I am definitely more afraid of killer clowns in sewers, vampires taking over my town, and haunted hotels possessing caretakers than cornfields.

I did read the New and Improved version of The Stand that was published in 1990. I guess I could have gone back to the Old and Lousy (and shorter by oh, around 300 pages) version from 1978 then compare it to the New and Improved version, but frankly, people, I have a job and can’t just spend my whole life reading Stephen King books. While I personally didn’t notice any blatant anachronisms (there are some listed on the Wikipedia page, in case this kind of thing concerns you), one did catch my attention: the fact that Trashcan Man had a lobotomy to try and ‘cure’ his crazy (who is Trashcan Man and why he is crazy will be discussed later. Or maybe not. There is a mini-series of The Stand, you know. It shows up relatively often on SyFy. And it will only take 6 hours of your life as opposed to the book, which is SUPER long). I found this fact to be almost an anachronism, but a very cool one. In 1978, lobotomies were rare, but this was a recent development–their heyday as a ‘cure’ for mental illness was during the 1950s and early 1960s. Considering that the revised version of the book is set in 1990, it would mean that Trashcan Man was older than I would guess. I love these kinds of moments when you realize what a different world we live in from the past. Another great example is Philip Roth’s book Nemesis, which everyone should rush out and read. You’ll be happy to know that it is approximately four times shorter than The Stand. It too is about a killer disease, except that the plot centers around polio and the fear that it could invoke in a 1944, New Jersey community. How things have changed, and how quickly.

I was struck by the parallels between The Stand and The Dark Tower, which are far too numerous to list in one blog post. There is something to be said for The Stand taking place in one of the alternative worlds found in the Dark Tower series; it is mentioned explicitly in Book 4, but there are more parallels than that. I’ll try not to get too into these comparisons, but it is hard. One thing that did annoy me about the 1990 version is that every so often, there would be a phrase or word from The Dark Tower and suddenly you would wonder if that was added later; by 1990, he had published Dark Tower books 1-2 and, since 3 came out the next year, he probably had an idea of where that was going. Or maybe not. Maybe he wrote it in two weeks. You never know with this guy. I will think about the intersections between 3 and The Stand when I get there, though, now that I’ve noticed how close those were in time. One that did hit me was that Mother Abigail referred to Franny’s baby as ‘the chap,’ which is exactly what Susanna does in The Dark Tower, only that her baby is not quite so welcome. I know, I am getting ahead of myself.

What I found most zeitgeisty about The Stand was its unambiguous division into Good People and Bad People. Sure, there were a few on the fence (by which I mean two that were actually developed as characters: Harold Lauter and Nadine Cross), but that was about it. This reminded me of Star Wars, which came out just a year before The Stand. Must have been something about unambiguous depictions of Good and Evil around this time. I was going to jokingly write, ‘Let’s blame Nixon, shall we?’ when I realized that I think that might be part of what Stephen King had in mind here since much of The Stand involves recreating an American society after America has disappeared due to a top-secret government plot gone awry. But that will definitely need to be saved for another day.

POST-APOCALYPSE AMERICA

The Stand is divided into three books: the first documents the superflu (also know as Captain Trips), a disease with a 99.4% mortality rate and no known cure, that is gradually taking over the world; the second chronicles the survivors as they travel to either Boulder, CO (good) or Las Vegas, NV (bad); and the third tracks the journey of a band from the Good People to Las Vegas, where they confront the evil Randall Flagg. Flagg is a recurring character in King’s books and he is always evil. He also shows up in Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower series. We learn in the extended version of The Stand that he cannot be killed; he is simply reincarnated, which might explain why his death in The Dark Tower was a let-down since he’s never really dead (think that over, angry fans). Flagg, in this book, is essentially a modern-day Sauron (Lord of the Rings), a parallel that is made clear when people have visions of an eye looking out at them. Considering that King mentions LOTR several times, the comparison is not hard to make.

Flagg’s Vegas is a functioning civilization, but one that is predicated on fear. He punishes people whom he views as dangerous in public and horrible ways. For the most part, while people are scared of him, they do nothing because they feel that in the post-apocalyptic world, a strongman is needed to keep order. In part, this idea makes sense considering the irrational violence and insanity that took hold after the superflu killed off most people–King also documents these incidents in some detail. In part, I think that King is arguing that some people willfully tolerate evil for a sense of security. There are numerous comparisons made to Flagg’s Vegas and the Nazis, but I found this idea to be off. I was reminded of Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery”–although justifications were given for the torturous, public deaths, there was an element of randomness to them. At one point, one member of society was accused of using drugs and publicly killed. It’s impossible to know if he was actually doing drugs or not. This could have been nothing more than a reminder of Flagg’s power.

As Flagg is setting up his evil empire in Vegas, the opposite is happening in Boulder, where the Good People are very concerned that a replica USA be established. The first meeting begins with reading the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Post-apocalyptic America will be founded on the same principles as before the flu, only there is a hope that the same mistakes will not be repeated. Boulder closely resembles a utopia in King’s view: much of the detailed organizing and planning takes place during the summer and fall, before the weather gets oppressive, and the people in the Boulder Free Zone (as it is called) seem content and happy. King provides considerable detail about the organized government and law system that emerges. It is hard for me not to see elements of the disillusion felt by Americans during the 1970s here: although it took a horrific superflu to start over again, this ‘new America’ is much happier, healthier, and shows promise for the future–unlike post-Watergate America recovering from the schismatic Vietnam War. Flagg’s Vegas, on the other hand, is as dead as the desert in which it is situated.

At one point, King quotes from Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as the small group from Boulder ventures to Vegas, and I feel that the reference is particularly apt. Imagine Vegas left to its own devices. It would be a testament to the mighty who have fallen. This idea of pride is a predominant theme in the novel as well. Predominant enough that perhaps it will be the topic of tomorrow’s blog post.

(You can find part two of this review here.)

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