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Monday, June 24, 2013

The dyin' ain't over. It's just got started.

The Stand by Stephen King

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Stand is a tale of death, loss, grief, love, human nature, and the struggle in each of us between our better angels and the demons beside them. It chronicles a series of events in America following the outbreak of a superflu epidemic dubbed "Captain Trips". Nearly 99% of population is wiped out, and our novel tracks the adventures and responsibilities taken on by several key survivors of the plague.  Don't be fooled, though! The plague is just the Beginning of the protagonists' problems (after all, it is Stephen King).  Our heroes and heroines survive Captain Trips only to be faced with an epic showdown with the devil in Las Vegas. (And yes. I mean that literally.) A ragtag band of rebels and a motley crew of henchmen for the devil go toe for toe and crucifixion, remote pregnancies, suicides, bombings, and pyromaniac-stoked atomic bombs ensue. (None of that is an exaggeration, fyi.) Good prevails (at least for now), and civilization rebuilds in the great city of Boulder, CO.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I can't say that I really liked this book, but I also wouldn't say that I hated it. Gore, violence, and penetrating evil aren't really my preferred genre, so I can't measure King against contemporaries. I will say that his writing is better than the average thriller writer of today, but in my opinion it definitely clocks in under a large group of other writers on my list. This was also one of King's earlier works (and I happened to read an "extended version" - not sure how much it differs from the original - it was the only copy available at the bookstore), so it's entirely possible that his writing has "improved" (though I sort of hate that term, as I think writing and books are all so subjective that an "improvement" is highly difficult to measure and/or agree upon). In any case, if you're a King fan, I can see what all the buzz is about; that said, I'm unlikely to run out and grab more any time soon. Some thoughts, in no real order...

- Unexpected heroes
I thought King did a great job of building an unexpected cast of characters. Kudos for working with several populations that often go unexplored in literature, and for taking on so many different perspectives! A few I noted:
     - Tom Cullen (mentally challenged)
     - Nick (deaf-mute)
     - Kojak (dog)
     - Leo (semi-deranged boy suffering from PTSD of sorts)

- Anticlimax
I found this book to be a HUGE anticlimax. The devil blew up (OR DID HE?) and then the rest of the book followed Tom Cullen and Stu's return to Boulder from Vegas. Which, to be fair, was one of my favorite parts of the book, but it was NOT a fantastic showdown with the devil. I felt like there was a tremendous amount of buildup for a non-event. Not that an atomic bomb isn't an event, but in writing, it takes up very little space and seems a bit like a cop-out for an epic good/evil battle.

- God/Not-God
I am strongly agnostic, leaning toward mystic/atheistic the older I get, and while I believe in morals and leading a purposeful, service-driven life, I am not into heavy-handed Bible imagery and predestination. The idea that my life is planned out for me and each choice and action I take are merely steering my little gamepiece on a track like one on the LIFE board is frankly distasteful.  I believe that if my life is good and honest and meaningful it's because I make it so, not because God guided me to those actions. Mother Abagail, a central character, basically acts as a prophet for the rebel forces, and I found the passages from her point of view to be tedious and uninspired. It seems like a cop-out for good to defeat evil because God decided to let them on that particular day. And it certainly doesn't explain the million other days when evil wins.

- Larry's Mom 
Saddest/cutest/award-for-tugging-on-my-heartstrings moment in the book - Larry, a character who's mostly a total jerk in the beginning, shows up on his mom's doorstep Out of the Blue and treats her like crap, and when she calls him on it, he threatens to leave, to which she counters:

"'Don't go', she said softly. 'I wish you wouldn't, Larry. I bought some food special.  Maybe you saw it. And I was hoping maybe we could play some gin rummy tonight." awww! Moms!

This book was gross. I know, I'm a girl, and a person who has her own reasons for steering clear of certain morally murky violent content, but still, it seemed awfully nasty. There were a lot of things described in detail that I felt could have been briefly depicted (or left out completely) but I recognize this is also probably what makes a lot of people love Stephen King. He goes there when NO ONE ELSE wants to go there, and while he's there, he's like, HEY! Let's go a little deeper! The notes above are some of my favorites from my copy by the end. I particularly like the "Suck more, Larry!" comment. (Like I said, he's mostly a jerk. For mostly a Very Long Time.)

- Too many characters
There were a LOT of characters. I think literally for the first 200 pages, you don't go more than a chapter without jumping to a new group of characters. Thankfully, the epidemic kills a lot of people off and then we don't have as much trouble keeping them straight. (heh heh) I felt like a trimmed down cast might have made me care a little more about main actors on both side of the battle, though.

- No process for death
Much of the superflu felt like a news cycle from today gone very, very bad. Not beyond the realm of possibility, but seriously out of control. Maybe I'm a bit too cynical because the threat of bioterrorism has become much more real or maybe I've just watched too many crime shows, but reading about the corpses and decomposition and wipeout of the human race didn't really bother me. What made the emotion catch in my throat was this - Larry leaves his mom's dead body in a hospital crammed full of the sick and dying with nothing more than a note. Which seems callous (and is a little - it's Larry, after all!) but follows logically from this:
"No sober young doctor was going to come along, express sympathy, and then start the machinery of death." How would we mourn in an abnormal environment? What assumed formalities, once considered cold and clinical, would become a lost and longed-for comfort?

- Hating on cats
"Cats did not catch the flu, and dozens of them wove in and out of the twilit stillness like smoky shades." Cats survive, but only a handful of dogs do, one of whom plays a large role in helping the good side. Don't get me wrong, I like a "man's best friend" storyline, but hell-O! Why did Stephen King have to hate on cats? Lots of characters bemoan the fact that cats have stuck it out. Unacceptable. Cats are fantastic and wonderful in every way (obviously I'm not capable of exaggeration in this arena) and we should BE SO LUCKY as to have them survive an epidemic with us.

- M-O-O-N and that spells Tired. M-O-O-N and that spells Stew. M-O-O-N and that spells Tom Cullen. Tom Cullen knows that! 
Tom Cullen is hands down my favorite character. He reminded me of Benjy/Maury in The Sound and the Fury and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. There's a brilliant sweetness to him, and he makes for a fantastically unexpected hero. He likes to say, "Laws, Yes!" (ex: It's time for bed! Law's yes, it is!) and speak in the third person (Tom Cullen is tired. Laws, Yes!) and he develops a close bond with Nick, a deaf-mute character. He also likes to say M-O-O-N and that spells (insert a word that's Not Moon. ex: M-O-O-N and that spells Cat!) I found this adorable. When I started saying it to my sisters, I think they found it just a touch less adorable.

Here's an interaction between Nick and Tom in the early days after the epidemic:

Tom: "You movin on, Mister?"
Nick nodded.
"I don't want you to!" Tom burst out. His eyes were wide and very blue, sparkling with tears. "I like you! I don't want you to go to Kansas City, too!"
Nick pulled Tom next to him and put an arm around him. Pointed to himself. To Tom. To the bike. Out of town.
"I don't getcha," Tom said.
Patiently, Nick went through it again. This time he added the byebye wave, and in a burst of inspiration he lifted Tom's hand and made it wave byebye, too.
"Want me to go with you?" Tom asked. A smile of disbelieving delight lit up his face.
Relieved, Nick nodded.
"Sure!" Tom shouted. "Tom Cullen's gonna go!"  adorable!

- A bone-chilling description of the devil, aka Randall Flagg
"She never saw him; she didn't have to see him. He was a shadow passing through the corn at noon, a cold pocket of air, a gore-crow peering down at you from the phone lines. His voice called to her in all the sounds that had ever frightened her - spoken soft, it was the tick of a deathwatch beetle under the stairs, telling that someone loved would soon pass over; spoken loud it was the afternoon thunder rolling amid the clouds that came out of the west like boiling Armageddon."

- Eye of Sauron
The devil's eye is reMarkably similar to the Eye of Sauron, and at one point, SK even refers to Sauron's eye as a comparison. I found this a little weak, because the Eye of Sauron is so Epically awesome, and it seemed like SK could have diverged a bit more here to create his own twist.

- Girls -- Tea
At one point near the climax (or anticlimax) of the book, four men set out from the rebel band (on the deathbed-recommendation/rantings of Mother Abagail) to "face down the devil" and the ladyfolk actually sit down and have tea. SK does a decent job of writing female leads, and to his credit there are actually some decently strong heroines, but I was SOOOOOOOO angry at this moment. Seriously? We're going to war with the devil and the Women. Are. Having. Tea? You should see my face, SK.

- On the best post-apocalyptic helpers not always being the "winners" of yore:
"A job application form filled out by Ralph Brentner would look as if it had been through a Hamilton-Beach blender...misspelled, dog-eared, dotted with blots of ink and greasy fingerprints. His employment history would look like a checkerboard which had been around the world on a tramp steamer. But when the very fabric of the world began to tear open, it was the Ralph Brentners who were not afraid to say, 'Let's slap a little epoxy in there and see if that'll hold her.' And more often than not, it did."

Passages I particularly enjoyed:
  • "He had thought of leaving Arnette, searching for something better, but small-town inertia held him - the low siren song of familiar places and familiar faces."
  • Nick, the deaf-mute character, and his view of the world: "He lived in a silent world. Writing was code. Speech was the moving of lips, the rise and fall of teeth, the dance of a tongue."
  • A description of the dark man, Randall Flagg: "It was the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth, a face to make water glasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with dead stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees."
  • "Nick put his hands over his face because he wanted all the things the black manshape had shown him from this high desert place: cities, women, treasure, power. But most of all he wanted to hear the entrancing sound his fingernails made on his shirt, the tick of a clock in an empty house after midnight, and the secret sound of rain."
  • "A warm night like this, the stars, the summer moon just peeking his red lover's face over the horizon, it made her remember her girlhood again with all its strange fits and starts, its heats, its gorgeous vulnerability as it stood on the edge of Mystery."
  • "In that brief time between, the night had been a fragrant puzzle, a time when, looking up at the starstrewn sky and listening to the breeze that brought such intoxicating smells, you felt close to the heartbeat of the universe, to love and life."
  • "The dance of death was about to begin, and already the strings of the fiddles and guitars were smoking and the stench of brimstone and cordite filled the air."
  • "He was an American man, she knew that, a man who would have a taste for milk and apple pie, a man who would appreciate the homely beauty of red check and gingham. His home was America, and his ways were the secret ways, the highways in hiding, the underground railways where directions are written in runes."
  • "Far away over the mountains was another cloned creature. A cutting from the dark malignancy, a single wild cell taken from the dying corpus of the old body politic, a lone representative of the carcinoma that had been eating the old society alive."
I had a 1984 moment while I was reading this book - when Flagg started crucifying people, I had to pull out and dig my heels into humanity.  I went for a run in the toxic Virginia heat. I took in blue and purple hydrangeas (iron changes their color!), giggled at little girls in swimsuits running through the hose in their front yard, glimpsed one pristine, perfect white cloud, drank in the sweet smell of summer honeysuckle, got completely and totally lost (physically - I have a terrible sense of direction) and by the time I got back home had to scrub the hot, sticky sweat off my skin. While this was my least favorite moment of the book, it says something about a writer's power - King threw me off the couch and into the world, and that's not nothing.

Onwards to Reminiscences of a Hostess. Bask in the glory of summer and join me for a read-along if you will!

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