Saturday, July 26, 2014

Some Notes On The Stand

I recently reread The Stand for no particular reason other than I felt like it. I'm honestly not sure how many time I've read it at this point, more than three, less than a half dozen (though I can clearly remember my first visit to that horrifyingly stripped bare world as I can remember the first reading of all the truly great King stories). It's not my favorite of King's work,  but it is arguably his most richly and completely imagined. It truly is the American Lord of The Rings, with the concerns of England (Pastorialism vs. Industrialism, Germany's tendency to try and blow it up every thirty years or so) replaced by those of America (Religion, the omnipresent struggle between our liberal and libertarian ideals, our fear of and dependence on the military, racial and gender tension) and given harrowing size.

I'm happy to say that The Stand holds up well past the bounds of nostalgia and revisiting the world and these characters was as pleasurable as ever. But you can't step in the same river twice, even when you're revisiting a favorite book. Even if the river hasn't changed you have. This isn't meant as any kind of comprehensive essay on The Stand. Just a couple of things I noticed upon dipping my toes in the river this time.

-First off I should say that I'm an agnostic when it comes to the original cut vs. the extended edition.  On one hand there is a lot of great stuff in the extended cut that I would hate to lose. Fran's argument with her mother basically defines the character for the first half of the book and adds a lot of depth. The segment near the end of the first book that cross cuts between a series of survivors who were immune to Captain Trips but just couldn't hack it in the brave new world is some of the best writing of King's career and the final disquieting epilogue where Flagg is reborn is invaluable. Though Harold Bloom is probably waking up in a cold sweat as I type this, it brings to mind nothing so much as the haunting ending of Blood Meridian. Flagg may leave the stage ruminating that fate is like a wheel but, "He says he will never sleep, he says he will never die," would be just as fitting of an epitaph.

On the other hand, it's hard not to agree with Meredith Borders that plenty of the extra material just hurts the pacing. I for one wouldn't be at all sorry to lose the infamous Kid segment of the novel, if only because it cuts the amount of people I can recommend the novel to in half (I was planning on buying a copy for my little sister this time out and then it was like, "Oh yeah...") A third cut of the novel would probably be gratuitous, but it's hard not to wish for a happy medium between the two versions.

-I think part of the reason that Hollywood has had such a hard time adapting The Stand, beyond its length, is that it genuinely is an ensemble piece. Stu Redman looms large in the memory, and he probably is King's most successful and sympathetic every man this side of Johnny Smith, but if he has more pages dedicated to his POV than Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, or Fran Goldsmith (note how well the names in The Stand stick in the memory) then it is by the slimmest of margins.  The Stand is not the story of a single hero. The hero of The Stand is humanity as a collective. The story of the eternal desperate battle between the better angels and devils of our nature. That's a large canvas, and frankly I'm not sure it's something you can convey in three hours. If you try and force a traditional story structure on that it all kind of falls apart.

- On a similar note, for a character who looms so large in a certain segment of the popular conscious I was shocked by just how little Randall Flagg has to do in The Stand. He is a great villain but he's a great Harry Lime villain, building notoriety in the tension of his absence and in how others react to him. If you asked me to pick my favorite villain in any media, Flagg would be near top of the list but why?

Setting aside Flagg's appearance in dreams and scenes that infer his disembodied presence is spying among our heroes what do you actually see Flagg do? After his (admittedly impressive) introduction walking the backroads at the start of the plague and the scene where he breaks Lloyd out jail (another great scene, though the less said about the one where he harasses an old colleague dying of the super flu and then literally grabs the name Randall Flagg out of a glove box the better) he basically disappears from the novel. Once "off screen" he becomes the focus of every one's attention, talked about fearfully in harsh whispers and grandiose statements.

By the time Flagg finally does reemerge in the last two hundred pages of the novel, you basically watch him do nothing but fuck up from one end of book 3 to the other. Losing two prisoners to suicides he can't prevent, nearly getting blown away by a septuagenarian, losing his unborn heir, having half his arsenal destroyed and all his pilots killed by a disturbed lackey and last but certainly not least, accidentally triggering an atomic bomb in the heart of his strong hold.

So why are we so scared of this guy again?

Understand I'm not disparaging King or Flagg. Just noting that his characterization is a trick, a really, really good trick, even an enviable trick, but a trick.

Of course the revelation of Flagg's ultimate nature fits right in with the idea of Evil as a powerful, but ultimately unstable and self defeating force. One of the major themes of King's career. "The half life of evil is notoriously short," one character says in one of the best lines of the book and the practitioners of evil in King's universe are usually ultimately, "Bumhugs" not matter how powerful. If nothing else this reread of The Stand finally brought me to peace with Flagg's abrupt exit from The Dark Tower universe. Flagg's ending in the saga in which he played such a part may be ignominious but it is hardly out of character.

And yet the idea of The Dark Man walking down those lonely roads, face filled with good cheer, his bootheels worn to nubs, his jean jacket on in the Nebraska cold and Vegas heat alike still gives me such a chill.

-Before we leave the subject of adaptation behind entirely, it should be noted that the structure of The Stand is deeply weird in other ways around. To use a term that has been thrown around a lot lately in equal parts derision and praise, The Stand is a novel with a lot of world building going on.

After the slow motion car wreck that is book one and before the final act of book three, the bulk of the novel is taken up by questions of how to survive in the post Trips world. How to boil water, and scavenge for antibiotics, how to hold town meetings and elections, the best modes of transportation, how to get the power back on (in On Writing King revealed that this last one sparked something of an existential crisis). King basically turns the death of the world into a kind of play ground. On the page it's all compelling stuff, on screen it's hard not to see how it wouldn't end up a series of vignettes.

-When I compared The Stand to The Lord Of The Rings, I wasn't being idle. The book does very much feel like an American answer to Tolkien (In fairness King actually brings up Watership Down as his point of comparison, about half a dozen times to two Tolkien references. Either way it's all British epic fantasy to me).

King actually knowingly inverts Tolkien in some interesting ways. Making the protagonists all distinctly working class, when Tolkien's Hobbits were pretty much landed gentry.  Posing Flagg in some of his visions, on "a great high place" as Tolkien posed Sauron. And in my favorite tongue and cheek touch, putting his Mordor in the West rather than the East.

But to me the most interesting touch on Tolkien is how he handles The Gollum character, neatly splitting him into two between Harold Lauder in the east and Trashcan man in the west. All three are pathetic, ultimately pitiful characters who are ultimately instrumental in destroying the evil that they would serve. In Harold you have the travel with our heroes, the two faced, split identity between the well liked "Hawk" and the scheming, obsessed, hate filled "Harold Emery Lauder." In Trashcan Man you have the precious obsessed half man, deformed both mentally and physically by what he covets, who ultimately destroys evil not by overcoming it, but by giving in and following his worst impulses to their hideous logical conclusion. Gollum drowns the ring in fire, Trashcan Man consumes Las Vegas in flame. Gollum turns his back on the fellowship offered by Frodo in favor of his old obsession with the ring, Harold rejects, betrays and attempts to kill all of heroes , mostly because of being unable to let go of his old obsession with Fran. All three are given totemistic items to embody their obsessions, Gollum the ring, Trashcan man his A-Bomb and Harold his Ledger.

But what I find most fascinating about King's take on the character is the way he plays with the concept of fracturing identity, the Gollum/Smeagol divide that is present in both characters but manifests itself in totally opposite ways. Both characters are given the opportunity for reinvention in the post Captain Trips world, here is the end of our introduction to Trashcan Man as he merrily burns his hometown to the ground

"-Carley wasn't a kid anymore, any more than he was himself.
Maybe now he could be Don Elbert again, instead of Trashcan Man...
...From behind a perfect fusillade of explosions, God's ammuntion dump going up in the flames of righteousness, Satan storming heaven, his artillery capain a fiercely grinning fool with red, flayed cheeks, Trashcan Man by name, never to be Donald Merwin Elbert again."

Compared To:
"Harold's hair was longer than ever, but it was no longer dirty and clotted and tangled. He no longer smelled like a shootoff in a haymow. Even his blemishes were clearing up, now that he had laid off the candy. And with the hard work and all the walking, he was losing some weight. He was starting to look pretty good. There had been times in the last few weeks when he had strode past some reflective surface only to glance back over his shoulder, startled, as if he had caught a glimpse of a total stranger."


"In that hour or instant, he became aware that he could simply accept what was, and that knowledge had both exhilerated and terrified him. For that space of time he knew he could turn himself into a new person, a fresh Harold Lauder cloned from the old one by the sharp intervening knife of the superflu epidemic...
Harold sensed it and hated it."

And most blatantly...

"All of a sudden the old grudges, the old hurts and the unpaid debts seemed as worthless as the paper money choking all the cash registers of America.

Could it be true? Could it possily be true... 
Stop it! Stop it! You might as well be wearing handcuffs and legchains with one word stamped all over them. But! But! Can't you stop it, Harold?"

But of course Harold can't stop it. And his words in his penultimate scene, "I am doing this of my own free will," reflects Eleanor Vance, another of horror literature's more pitiable narcissist's final, chilling, "I am doing this me! Me! Why am I doing thi-".   

In other words in The Stand we have one character who positively can't wait to take on a new identity and one who holds on to his old one kicking and screaming. He creates a Smeagol who just can't wait to be Gollum and a Gollum who refuses to ever consider leaving Smeagol behind. And King posits that both stances are ultimate equally corrosive.  

- Every book is going to date because of the attitudes of its time, but there is one rather amusing moment in The Stand, where a supporting character is revealed to be a lesbian and Stu's reaction is more or less, "What??? A G-g-g-g-gay?" and then a pun is made over him not understanding the term bisexual.

Now I'm not trying to take King, or even poor Stu to task for this. Dayna is ultimately a minor character, but she's also arguably the most overtly heroic in the book.  Stu's reaction isn't hateful, just confused. Keep in mind Stu's supposed to be a good ole boy from Backwater, Texas circa 1990 and was originally a good ole boy from Backwater, Texas circa 1978, so his reaction isn't even necessarily inaccurate.

All I'm trying to point out is how alien that reaction would read in a book released today. As a straight dude it's not really my place to shake my head and marvel, "My how far we've come." But it's hard not to notice that less than twenty five years later Stu's reaction isn't just dated, it reads as borderline nonsensical.

-And yet aside from a few moments like this the thing that struck me on this read of The Stand is just how forceful a vision it remains. Like my reread of Carrie last year, The Stand convinced me more than ever that King's work, will last. Trying to predict what will and won't last in literature is a fools game, but The Stand, like King's best work, is dated only on the surface, the raw strength of its vision radiates as strongly as ever.

Consider this, The Stand is a book that is very tied in with the anxieties of King's Boomer generation. A world where the military industrial complex has let Thanos run riot baby and the country destroys itself in an orgy of death with a feeling uncomfortably close to relief. But consider the events themselves, journalists are assassinated, the policy of mutually assured destruction is enacted, protesting students are gunned down by the army, disinformation is spread, racial tensions flare up into violence (the mini race war that breaks out in an occupied television station is one of the ugliest things I've ever read and is still probably one of the finest moments of purely horrifying fiction). In short the worst case scenario predicted by the students protesting Dow Chemical comes to horrific life.

And yet this image of rapid destabilization, of incomprehensible action and then an equally blind and terrible reaction will resonate just as strongly with our still rattled post 9/11, post Katrina consciousness.  Compare the apocalypse in King's book with how dated Chris Carter's boomer based vision in The X Files looks, despite being much more "current". Carter's conspiracy, which lest we forget hinged on the terrifying, omnipotent organization known as FEMA, looks laughable. King's is still chilling. King has created a nightmare that resonates equally well with two extremely different sets of social fears and anxiety. To borrow a phrase from King himself, "Man that's not just good..." 


If you've enjoyed my ramblings about The Stand, perhaps you will consider purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre, which contains many more ramblings about Stephen King, including extended ones about The Shining and Pet Semetary. 2.99 Cheep! On The Kindle and The Nook


In case you missed it, I'm writing for a new venue now called Agents Of Geek. It's mostly book and comic reviews (Here's one of Seconds that I'm particularly pleased with) though occasionally I touch on film as well. 

It's a good crew over there so give it a look. 

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