Sunday, August 03, 2014

The End of the World As We Know It - "The Stand"

Last week, I posted the following on my Facebook page: 

"So, let's see here...war in the Middle East, check. Planes being shot down allegedly by Russia, check. Ebola outbreak, check. Flesh-eating bacteria in the ocean off the Florida coast, check. Yep, I'd say my end-of-the-world dreams are all primed to make a comeback, after taking a couple of decades off."

We certainly seem to be living through the confluence of a lot of crazy things right now, but it's also a true statement that the world has been dangerous place for a long time now.  And although I wasn't consciously thinking about it at the time, that may have been going through my mind a couple of weeks ago when I decided to pick up Stephen King's "The Stand" for what I call a "speed read" - taking my time on the sections I really enjoy, moving quickly through some parts, and skipping some parts altogether.  And not too worry - I've read the entire thing from cover to cover on several occasions, both the original version and the deluxe version where King added back a couple of hundred pages that he'd been forced to edit out at the behest of his publisher's accounting department.

I wouldn't argue that "The Stand" is King's best book (I'd say "It," followed by "The Dead Zone"), but it seems to be his most beloved, and admittedly it is the one I come back to more often than any of the others I've read.  I think there's a reason for that - even though the premise is horrifying, there's something fascinating about the notion of a civilization starting over with (more or less) a clean slate. The best parts of the novel depict journeys.  After the apocalypse you've got Stu, Glen, Frannie and Harold making their way across the country from Maine towards Nebraska; Larry's group with Nadine and Joe/Leo heading the same way; Nick and Tom Cullen making their way up from the south.  Much later on, there are the journeys of Stu/Larry/Glen/Ralph across the plains to confront their fate in the hands of Randall Flagg, and then the journey of Stu and Tom back to Colorado.  Each one of these episodes is an adventure worthy of its own book, and that's before you even begin to think about the personal journeys that these characters go through.  At the end of this book no one, whether they are living or dead, is the same person that they were when the book began.  For some it's a story of redemption, for others it's a story of descent, and for others it's a matter of discovering things within themselves that they never knew were there before.  

And as one might expect from a book that is 1152 pages long, there are plenty of what I can only call "Stephen King moments" - small stories within the larger narrative that sometimes move that narrative forward, and other times just add pieces to the puzzle or even atmosphere to the proceedings.  My favorite, and it's only a few pages long, is when Stu tells the story of a night long ago, when he encountered a famous rock star who was supposed to be dead.  It doesn't necessarily mean anything in the larger scope of the story that King is telling, but it tells us a lot about Stu, giving us some insight into the type of person he's always been.

It may sound funny to say it, but at the end of the day the most apt thing one can say about "The Stand" is that it's a great yarn.  And here's hoping that we don't have to live through it anytime soon.

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