Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Stand by Stephen King

The Stand: Complete and Uncut
by Stephen King
Copyright 1990

The Stand was originally published in 1978 as Stephen King’s fourth novel. In its original format, it was approximately 700 pages. In 1990, King published The Stand with an additional 300 pages added – replacing much of what his editors excised. The book became a whopping 1150 page epic saga of dark Christianity and the fall of man.

Much of what was added improved the book. It added depth to the characters – particularly to the man known as “The Trashcan Man.”

The tale is set in 1990 when a superflu virus concocted by the U.S. military escapes an Army base. A lone guard managed to take his family and flee the base located in a Nevada desert, eventually ending up in the east Texas village of Arnette. With his family dead and him dying, that guard started the process that would doom American civilization and more than 2/3 of mankind.

Soon, the superflu – known as “Captain Trips” – spreads across the nation and killing all who contract it. Men turn on men. Civilization and government break down. Cities fall into chaos. And eventually, there are just a few who, for unknown reasons, have a natural immunity and survive.

Those left alive begin randomly journeying across the country. Each has strange, but identical dreams. They dream of an ancient black woman living in the fields of Nebraska who beckons them to come to her. Another dream, much darker and sinister, is of a dark man with no face, who stalks them.

Eventually, several of the survivors meet up. Those of good disposition seek out the aforementioned black woman – Mother Abigail Freemantle in Hemmingford Home, Nebraska. Others are drawn to the Dark Man – Randall Flagg – setting up shop in Nebraska.

The good guys eventually settle in Boulder, Colorado while Flagg and his legions re-establish Sin City. Flagg’s plan is world domination and unleashing evil. Mother Abigail’s plan is God’s will. Eventually, four of Mother Abigail’s followers travel to Las Vegas to make their Stand against Flagg and the forces of evil.

It’s difficult to write an objective criticism of your all time favorite book. Post apocalyptic fiction is my favorite thing to read and while some books have come close, such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, The Stand stands above the rest.

What sends The Stand above and beyond the others is the deconstruction of society that unfolds in the first third of the book. In Matheson’s tale, some of that deconstruction is told in flashback. In Swan Song, society is wiped out in an instant by a nuclear blast. King’s book starts with men lazing about a small town Texas gas station. As the flu spreads, we read as Americans first become suspicious that what is happening is more than your average flu epidemic. That suspicion turns into fear as the Army begins quarantining cities and killing those who resist. Finally, with their ranks decimated by the flu, the military gives way to the mobs who also eventually succumb to the virus.

Another striking difference in The Stand versus other post-apocalyptic fiction is the quiet beauty of the post-apocalyptic world. McCammon’s world is scorched. Matheson’s is haunted. Cormac McCarthy paints an even bleaker picture in his book, The Road where the world is dead and covered in gray ash.

King’s world after the fall of man is tranquil. Machines are silenced. Nature and her creatures reign supreme. It is pastoral rather than frightening. This increases the effectiveness of King’s story. It is not the setting that is disturbing – but the story itself.

As stated earlier, this is a book of dark Christianity. Effectively, King never references Revelations where many have interpreted various ways the doom of man. His Christian references are more about the nature of God and God’s demands of man mostly found in the Old Testament. It is also found in the contrast of good and evil. Mother Abigail is mortal. She is frail and old. She exhibits no superhuman strength or ability. She is able to rally those who flock to her simply because people have faith in her – even if they don’t necessarily have faith in the God of Abraham.

Flagg, on the other hand, is definitely supernatural. He has the power to take on other forms such as wolves and crows. He can levitate. He can transmute objects and he see events unfold at great distances. He is not Satan. It is not explicitly stated, but I don’t believe he is supposed to be one of Satan’s minions. Rather, I saw him as a supernatural being perhaps trying to gain Satan’s favor. While the Christian God is frequently referenced by Mother Abigail as the source of her leadership, Flagg never acknowledges a higher power.

The characters in The Stand are perhaps the strongest King ever developed. King acknowledges this a bit in the foreword to the new edition when he states that people frequently ask him whatever happened to various individuals from the novel. King humorously suggests that people think he gets regular letters from them.

What makes these characters so dynamic is the dramatic transformation each undergoes. This is difficult for a writer. If a character is abruptly transformed from average Joe into a superhero, the reader feels cheated. If the character is transformed over time, but carries forward with him none of the essence of who he was, the reader feels cheated. Each of King’s heroes and antagonists is dramatically transformed while never losing their essence.

Witness Stuart Redman of Arnette, Texas. He’s an everyman. He is a single white male factory worker living in a slightly depressed southern town. His thoughts are simple. His reasoning simple. He has the wisdom that comes from age and living in hard times, but is gifted with know great knowledge or insight. Yet, his heroic struggle to escape the Center for Disease Control in Stovington, Vermont as the plague is just finishing chewing on mankind is riveting and heroic. His leadership skills develop as he leads a group from New England to Colorado develop to a point where he is eventually placed at the leadership of the Boulder community.

Larry Underwood, narcissistic rock star whose greatest pastime is self-indulgence is transformed into a man willing to make great sacrifices. He is transformed first by the death of his mother of the flu, then the death of a traveling companion as he leaves New York City. Even as Larry emerges as a hero, he is riddled by self-doubt and just a hint of self-loathing, recognizing his character flaws and striving against them. It is he who leads the way to man’s salvation in Las Vegas.

On the dark side, there is Lloyd Heinreid. Lloyd is a small time punk who graduates to maniacal unpremeditated murder in the early days of the superflu as he and his killing mate go on a killing and robbery spree across the American west.

While society, fades, Lloyd finds himself in prison for murder. He is left there to starve as there is no one left to feed or care for him. The Dark Man comes to his rescue and secures the promise of fealty in exchange for his release. Lloyd gives Flagg more than fealty. He develops the leadership skills to become the chief administrator in Flagg’s highly ordered Las Vegas society. He is also transformed from mindless and simple to efficient and effective.

Then there is Harold Lauder, who is the most conflicted character in the book. He is an overweight, unattractive, insecure adolescent in love with another survivor from his Maine hometown. In society, he is the target of bullies, the shame of his parents, and the object of no one’s affection. He sees an opportunity to perhaps change all that when the society he scorned and scorned him falls to the wayside.

What is remarkable about Lauder’s transformation is that it is dramatic only superficially while he remains the same bitter, socially disenfranchised adolescent on the inside. He develops into a glad handler -- always willing to pitch in and help in Boulder with the most unpleasant tasks, such as the gathering and disposal of dead bodies. He outwardly surrenders the object of his affection to Stuart Redman while seething with jealousy and hate on the inside. The people of Boulder do not see him as an insecure adolescent spurned by the woman he loves, but as a strong and able man they call “Hawk.” Inwardly, however, Lauder’s insecurities keep him from joining society and lead him to his doom.

It is the strength of these characters and King's ability to make us care for even the most unsympathetic of them, that engages the reader.

No review of The Stand can be complete without at least a brief discussion of Larry Underwood’s flight from New York through the Lincoln Tunnel. King fans will tell you this is perhaps the most effective writing King has ever done. To reveal too much would be to spoil the effect for the reader, and I don’t like spoilers. Let it be said that Larry’s trip through Lincoln Tunnel, full of cars packed with rotting corpses, is the 20 most terrifying pages I’ve ever read. To the intellectual snobs who dismiss King as a purveyor of genre slop, I invite them to find anything in Poe or Lovecraft as compelling or terrifying.

The Stand is a prequel to The Dark Tower. It is never explicitly stated, but Roland Duschaine’s world is the United States, hundreds if not thousands of years after The Stand. The remnants of society as we know it are found there. We know man did not advance much technologically after the The Stand. There are peculiarities that demonstrate that the events in The Stand sent mankind in a much different direction than he was originally headed and dramatically impacted Mother Nature as well.

Believe it or not, the end of The Stand strikes a somewhat positive note. After the stand in Las Vegas, our heroes are hopeful and looking forward to a future that they are confident they can build without the evils of the past such as genetically engineered flu bugs. What transpires between The Stand and the first book of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, King never tells us. But we can be sure it was not positive.

The supernatural being that he is, we can also count on the return of Randall Flagg, aka the Dark Man. His being and his nature are revealing of the essence of the object of Roland’s quest.

The Stand is revered by many King fans – including me – as his finest work. His deconstruction and reconstruction of society is unparalleled by any work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. This is his finest story, populated by his finest characters and well worth the many hours it will take to complete reading it. While it is the most integral of his stand alone novels to the Dark Tower saga, it stands alone as a great novel as well.

The Stand was made into a two part, made for television mini-series as well, starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, and many others. One would think that any television adaptation of King’s greatest work would fall tremendously short (as so many other adaptations of good King stories have). It is not nearly as satisfying as the novel, but does not fall down as badly as one might think.

No comments:

Post a Comment