Stand, The, Complete and Uncut by King, Stephen, 1991
One of the first adult genre books that I ever read, back when I was eleven or so, was Stephen King's The Stand from 1978. I was a bit reluctant to pick it up at first because it was so big. At 750 pages it was bigger than anything I had ever read before. But by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. And twelve years later when King's The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition came out - at a hefty 1,100 pages, or thereabouts - I was the first in line in my home town to get it. The Stand - a science/fantasy that draws on horror tropes to boot - is a catastrophe/post-apocalyptic story about a human engineered form of the influenza virus that is over 99.4% fatal. Distilled down to its core it is a good-versus-evil story without compare, a morality tale about the durability of the American way of life, and a right-good crack at a new American mythology.
The Stand is divided into three large books. The first is about the accidental release of the superflu, called Captain Trips, and the upheavals that the world goes through over the course of two weeks as it kills just about everybody on the planet. My penchant for the morbid and love of apocalypse stories has made this one my favorite of the three sections, though the other two are also fine. The superflu works quickly, but King takes his time telling the story of the end of America. The government and the military try desperately to contain the accidental outbreak, but because of the fluidity of our society and the virulence of the disease, there is just no chance of doing that. King's mantras for the destruction of American society are Achebe's "things fall apart from the center," and Elliot's "this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." He does a credible job wrapping the story with one or both of those ideas very well, and though there are some explosive combat scenes, America does go out pathetically.
Book two is King's homage to Tolkien. After the bulk of the nation lies dead the few survivors begin to have prophetic dreams. Some are called to Nebraska by an ancient woman named Abigail Freemantle, while others are drawn to Las Vegas by one of King's recurring villains, Randall Flagg. They all begin to wander across the land to wherever their moral compass led them. Mother Abigail is the figurehead around which a new idealistic American republic is forged, while those in Las Vegas prepare weapons of mass destruction for an assault against Abigail's folks in the "Boulder Free Zone," as it is called, in Boulder, Colorado. Abigail cautions those in the Free Zone that this is more than a war of ideals, however: This is a war between God and Satan for the souls of those who survived the disease. Book three is the resolution of that conflict, and it is ripe with Godly miracles.
I'm not sure that King was trying to blaze new trails here. This book is clearly influenced by Stewart's Earth Abides, and with the narrative King seems to be trying to fill in the blanks in the Bible:
The Bible, it don't say what happened to Noah and his family after the flood went down. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people - for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn't be surprised if that was on for us.
But I think what King was really trying to say was that it wasn't enough for God to have destroyed almost everyone; if he really wanted to start over, he should have given some other race a chance, because not even that catastrophe is enough to ruin our way of life. No matter how few of us there are our morals and ideals will remain uncompromised, and the patterns of our old society and our old morals will be the patterns of the next, and the same battles will rage over the same issues of good and evil. Naturally, King splits the two sides up. In Boulder can be found the idealism of our nation's forefathers. In Las Vegas resides the cynicism that has infected our current governors (and, as usual, evil this time is not a hoard of slavering demons, but is instead nothing more than a bastion of the crazy and/or the cynical who tell themselves that Evil Flagg is good enough for now). After the lines are drawn spies and skirmishers fan out in to give birth again to a series of pointless battles that created lots and lots of martyrs.
Rereading that last paragraph, it might seem that I disliked this book. In fact, I love this one more than most. Personally speaking, I think that I love this book so much because for me, it’s a bit of wish fulfillment. Of course, I would not want the world to die like this. But there is - deep inside of me - a perverse section of my soul that would be happy if all the idiots in the world were to one day disappear, and the ecology go back to its clean, natural state, with game and an abundance of property everywhere for the taking, leaving a BIG job before me to help save the rest of us. Heroism and self-sacrifice define these characters, and from the first time I read it, I put myself into the narrative as much as I could. I tend to do that a lot with post apocalypse books, but with this one, where the good guys all wear white hats and the bad guys can be seen seven miles out, I find it easy to get lost.
From a technical stand point, The Stand leaves - in some places - a bit to be desired. There are so many cute asides in this book that in parts the saccharine-sweetness of it causes me to gag. On the other hand, especially in the first book King has a very organic and smooth way of showing certain scenes from multiple perspectives. For example, once the superflu gets a firm hold in Maine a troupe of soldiers captured a television studio full of people. They were playing a murderous game of Let's Make a Deal, where they would assassinate contestants who missed a question. They aired the game on TV, and when another group of soldiers showed up a firefight broke out and almost everyone died. Several chapters later Frannie (a major character) buried her father after he died in his flower garden, and had the TV on in the background while she was preparing. She remarked in shock how real the program felt.
King also has a very good understanding of the psychological impact of the plague and really used group dynamics well. And as usual, King really describes the psychology of desperation very well, primarily with the stories of the Trash-Can Man (a severely emotionally damaged mental patient who was haunted by his memories of the dead) and Lloyd Henreid (a murderer whom Flagg freed from his cell before he starved after all of the guards and convicts died). King also did a fantastic job with another character - Larry - a selfish musician who was rocked out of his ignorance of other's feelings by multiple, fatal failures, and who become a stalwart soldier, governor, father and husband, and who in the end accepted God into his heart.
Which brings me to the odd aspect of this book. I think that this book was written to appeal to the God-fearin' folk of the middle states. God figures pretty big in this book (a cross between the fire-and-brimstone Yahweh aspect of God, and the loving-lamb Jesus side). In the end the main characters win not by smiting Flagg and Las Vegas, but by accepting God into their hearts and letting him do the rest. But that's not all. Consider Flagg. I don't know the writing history of this book, but Flagg has always seemed to me to be modeled on a hippie; not the free-love and good times seeking gentle kind of hippie. More like what the hippies turned into - an avatar of chaos and rage that gave birth to the Weathermen and the Black Panthers. Flagg, with his dirty blue jeans, his long hair, his jeans jacket, his anti-police buttons, was probably everything that middle America hated and feared over what the hippie movement turned into after it failed. But, still, that is not all. There is more to this novel then anti-hippies versus the penitent. King created an American mythology that relies on archetypes from our own experience. On one side - the bad - there is an anarchist demon (Flagg), a trustworthy murderer (Lloyd), a savant armorer (Trash Can Man), a gullible virgin (Harold) and a wronged wife with a Madonna-Whore complex who sought the truth no matter where it led her (Nadine). On the other side - the good guys side - you will find this crew's opposites, including the ancient crone who's saints were the Founding Fathers (Mother Abigail), the hero who questions his lot (Larry), a feeble hero (Tom Cullen), an honest and trusting country boy who always knows the right thing to do (Stu) and an emotionally naive wife whom everyone tries to keep the bad news from (Frannie). These characters inhabit their archetype personalities perfectly. They never vary from them, and I find that pretty simplistic and simplifying, but it makes the book eminently more readable. In many respects this story is transparent pandering, and a some of the imagery is just laugh-out-loud silly. What with the good lady being a kindly old 108 year old woman of color who stands up for herself even though she can barely stand for any other reason. And Flagg, who does bad things not for evil's sake, or for a purpose, but because it titillates him, and whose power fades near the end, well, just because good is always supposed to win, and as is Flagg was probably unbeatable.
Wow. Maybe I really don't like this thing as much as I think! Seriously though, This book is only as simple as it needs to be to have mass appeal, which means that despite the technical shortcomings in character and plot, the ideas in it are top-notch, the feeling is epic, and the resolution is satisfying enough to have made me read this thing about seven times so far.