Stephen King,
The Stand
(Doubleday, 1978)

Do people ever really learn anything?

It's a good question, and one that Stephen King doesn't quite answer in this masterful, frightening, breathtaking, beautiful -- yes, I said beautiful -- novel. I've read both the original edition and the uncut version; I prefer the uncut. Not for what has been restored so much as for what those restorations have done for the overall novel. The restorations of the cut sequences add immeasurably to The Stand, bringing light to places formerly shadowed, expanding the vistas to a breadth and depth that is truly astonishing.

In my review of Wizard & Glass I mentioned King's lyricism; I'd like to write about that again here, because The Stand is brimming with that lyric style (which seems to have deserted King in his last few novels, Bag of Bones excepted). His line about the clock in the parlor ticking off "segments of time in a dry age" and his evocative description of Kojak's journey to reunite with Glen Bateman are key examples of what I mean. When you read those lines and passages, they sing to you. Even the darker moments, such as Larry Underwood's harrowing jaunt through the Lincoln Tunnel and Trashcan Man's mad, scary encounter with The Kid (who seems like a distillation of every early rock pioneer who ever scared your grandparents -- there's a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis in The Kid), vibrate and pulse with that plain yet elegant language that is King's true gift.

The plot of the novel itself borrows from a few different sources (the novel Earth Abides, The Bible, T.S. Eliot, the stories about the SLA and livestock-killing chemical-weapon spills that were then current in the news) and weaves them into a new fabric. A deadly strain of the flu is accidentally unleashed on the world, by a series of mishaps that Rube Goldberg would have been proud of -- only a handful of people are immune, and while they stare in wonder and fear at what is happening around them, we are treated to such delights (if that's the word) as mass hysteria, suicide, execution and government-ordained slaughter -- vis-a-vis King's retelling of the Kent State tragedy, which some saw as a cheap shot at Uncle Sam, but which I feel was totally appropriate to the story. The survivors begin having dreams -- some dream of an old woman in Nebraska, named Mother Abigail. Others dream predominantly of an otherworldly, frightening personage with no face -- Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin' Dude ... his name is Legion, as one of the characters later points out. The dreams call the survivors -- the good ones to Boulder, the evil ones to Flagg in Las Vegas. And from there, King leads his characters into a battle between the forces of Dark and Light Magic as has rarely been seen in the realm of fantastic fiction.

The characters in The Stand are some of King's best: Stu Redman, Glen Bateman, Nick Andros, Tom Cullen, Lloyd Henried, the scarifying Trashcan Man, the Judas-like Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross ... and of course King's finest creation to date, the deadly, destructive, Dionysian Randall Flagg. A word about the Walkin' Dude: he's appeared in several of King's novels now, has come to be the villain of the Dark Tower series, and I would be hard put to find a character more evil, yet also more of a joy to read about, than Flagg. Like the Joker in the Batman comics, Flagg is a homicidal maniac -- but he's so damned happy about his work! There is a glee to him, a merriness that makes the character what he is. The sequence with Christopher Bradenton is a great illustration of the Dark Man's wickedly funny menace -- ditto his first encounter with Henried in the Arizona jail. Flagg is fun -- but let's face it folks, he's also real scary. His "wedding night" with Nadine is the other side of his coin, and a more terrifying passage is hard to find in King's work.

The female characters though -- and this is typical of early King -- don't fare so well. With the exceptions of Frannie Goldsmith and Mother Abigail (more on her in a second), they all come off subordinate to the men. King even tries to rationalize this chauvanism at one point, and it makes someone of my postmodern sensibilities want to cringe. But this is a minor issue, and I won't take King to task for it. Much. The subject of Abby Freemantle is another matter. King here has created a female counterpart to Jack Halloran in The Shining, a mystical "super-black" character whose job it is to show whitey what to do, then get the hell out of the way -- not unlike J.C. in The Green Mile, Mike in It and (to a lesser degree) Odetta/Detta in The Drawing of the Three. This is not perhaps an awful thing -- certainly others have done it before and since (for example, The Legend of Bagger Vance), but neither is it very noble, despite what must have been King's best intentions. It isn't precisely demeaning, but it is condescending ... and it's worth noting that one of the book's few other black characters, Rat-Man, is a stereotypical urban hood-type, whose Stepin Fetchit patois makes you wonder how far we've really come. King himself has said that he writes well for neither blacks nor women, though he has made some inroads with respect to the latter -- see Rose Madder and Dolores Claiborne. Even so, his treatment of ethnicities and gender here is wince-inducing at times.

As to the question in the title above -- whose answer King never really gives, and rightly so -- I will say this: Maybe we never do really learn anything. After you live long enough, you see people, communities and nations repeat the same mistakes so many times that you begin to doubt humanity's intelligence. Santayanna said that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it -- and perhaps it will be required that God teach us a lesson as fearsome and unforgettable as the one in The Stand for us to ever accept Santayanna's thesis. I hope not. In the meantime there is King's tale of dark Christianity to do the job for us, to make us think about the consequences of all we do, to warn us of the dangers of pride and remind us who the future is really for -- our children. And that is a lesson worth learning, indeed.

book review by
Jay Whelan

5 March 2011

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