Novel * Stephen King * Plague Apocalypse * 1978/1990 (expanded)
The Stand is not a worst-case-scenario type of apocalypse. It is, however, very close to it. The novel is an account of a cataclysmic plague event, which was unwittingly released upon the world by the United States government. This disease, which is a super virulent strain of the flu, was created as a biological weapon and was kept in a laboratory in the Mojave Desert. It escapes into the population, and because it was artificially designed to be both as communicable and as deadly as possible, quickly spreads from Texas to all corners of the world. Captain Trips is born, and it’s bad news. Since it’s simply an advanced form of the flu, there is no way to initially identify the disease, and most people unknowingly spread the disease hither and yon and eventually 99.6% (which is oddly specific) of the world’s population is dead. The first part of the novel unspools with unsettling speed as it documents the spread and dominance of the plague. The narrative initially follows the first disease vector, but then stretches out to encompass most of the main characters as they deal with the effects of the superflu.
It is this attention to the cast of characters which makes The Stand such a pillar of apocalyptic fiction. Yeah, there’s a terrible thing that wipes out most of the population, but that’s almost beside the point. What makes a lasting imprint on the reader is what folks like Stu, and Frannie, and Larry, and Nick get up to. It’s the looming horror of Randall Flagg and the more subdued, garden variety evil found in the likes of Lloyd and others. Here in the synopsis, these are just names. Yet the book spreads out over 1100 pages, so you’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people. It makes sense to understand were the principal characters came from before it was time for them to shine in the post-Apocalypse. It should be understood that this is more a book of the after than it is of the event itself. Not content to just document the survival adventures of his characters, King uses the aftermath of a humanity-crippling plague to stage a morality play.
Once the plague has finished ravaging humanity, the immune survivors start noticing a supernatural beacon that comes in the form of dreams. Everyone has them, and everyone is eventually pulled in one of two directions. Those who skew towards a good alignment are first pulled towards Nebraska, home of Mother Abigail, and later to Boulder, Colorado, where the white hats make their base of operations. Those who tend toward an evil alignment gravitate towards Las Vegas, where the dark man, The Walkin Dude, Randall Flagg has set up a new society for the black hats to set up shop. I am not being glib when I describe the set up thusly. This is some straight-up, good-versus-evil, light-against-dark shit right here. Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not an incitement of the plot of the novel. There are far more grey areas here than in, say, The Lord of the Rings. There’s nuance, and this cast of characters is one of King’s best. Myself, I’m partial to Larry Underwood, but perhaps that’s because he seems like a prototype of Eddie Dean (of the Dark Tower books). All that said, reading The Stand is a serious undertaking. There is a relentlessness to the journey, a haunting, creeping dread that casts a pall over the entirety of the proceedings. The people you make that harrowing journey with make it all worthwhile, however.
Many times, apocalyptic fiction boils down to an attempt to answer the question: why does everything suck so bad all of the time? At its core, The Stand isn’t any different. The novel makes the assumption that life in late 20th century America is lacking a key, unidentifiable, something which makes society deeply unpleasant, and borderline unbearable. As the story begins and we check in with all of our principal characters, nobody is having a good time. Stu Redman is living in a desolate, depressed Texas town hanging out and passing time. Frannie Goldsmith is young but unhappy, and dealing with an unplanned pregnancy with a dude who is a total ding-dong. Larry Underwood is figuring out that success can suck almost as bad as failure, depending on the industry. Nick is a deaf-mute drifter. You get the idea. The world is a vast, unknowable place and in ordinary circumstances, good, strong people fall through the cracks and perish without even the slightest opportunity to demonstrate their better qualities. The premise, then, is to take that world away and watch what happens.
Well, that’s part of the premise. Step one: destroy society. Step two: thrust a motley crew of random people into the desolate remains of America. Step three: ??? Step four: profit. Except Stephen King, unlike underpant gnomes, is a goddamn professional, so he has a step three. In this instance, it is to set up a supernatural power struggle to highlight the underlying issue with society. The struggle between Flagg and Mother Abigail is really a fight between social philosophies. Flagg is a chaotic-evil champion of technological order, even if his character is obviously supernatural in origin. Mother Abigail, on the other hand, is a lawful-good champion of faith and community, even if she is clearly a human who may or may not talk to God. In this manner, King sets up a weird paradox; an agent of chaos embraces order while an agent of orderly peace embraces disorganization. Here, I’ll let Glen Bateman explain:
“We’re all in this town for two reasons. The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn’t matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they’re all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn’t been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on the ‘technology,’ but ‘technology’ is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: ‘Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.’ It’s a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we’re here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational…. We’re here under the fiat of powers we don’t understand. For me, that means we may be beginning to accept – only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag – a different definition of existence. The idea we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a life trip… at least until it proves otherwise.”
The assumption we are working under here is that technology, by its very nature, leads to doom and damnation. It’s handy having a character who is a sociology professor, I’m sure, but Glen sums up the crux of the novel pretty nicely here. Technology, which is itself the product of rational thought, is the reason humanity can’t have nice things. Further, we can’t help ourselves. Even after errant technology spun out of control and murdered everyone, people immediately began to pick up the pieces in order to start over. Flagg, himself an irrational being, is still smart enough to harness the power of rationalism. He understands the power of orderly thought. While Flagg cares not for human society, other than impulsively looking to destroy it, he still leverages our human desires against not only the Boulder enclave, but his own people as well.
Meanwhile, Mother Abigail goes out of her way to eschew order and rationalism… at first. When we first meet her, she’s living alone in her ancient (by American standards) homestead in Nebraska. She’s 108 damn years old, but she manages to get by, even after the superflu wiped everyone out. The fanciest technology she has post-plague is a water pump. She is a creature of almost pure faith, and as such becomes the Lord’s vessel in the struggle against Flagg. Eventually, in Boulder, she succumbs to hubris and has to wander off into the wilderness to atone for her sin. It is no coincidence that her disappearance corresponds with the organization of Boulder. Since more time was allotted to ad hoc committees and fixing the power plant and other acts of rationalism, in order to balance the Holy Crusader scale, sacrifice was demanded in pure Old Testament style. Abigail, who lives according to God’s law, served the first part of this. The Chosen Foursome (Stu, Larry, Ralph, and Glen) are then sent into the desert to confront Flagg in his stronghold. This action is obviously irrational as fuck, but such an action is necessary to instigate the final showdown, which is the ultimate destruction of rationalism by its own tool of destruction.
Except, as it happens, nothing is final. By the time we follow Stu and Tom Cullen back to Boulder, the supernatural struggle is over, and humanity is left to its own devices once more. And of course, because it is our nature, society immediately begins building along the lines of rationalism. The ending is bittersweet, not only because several favorite characters were killed along the way, but because it seems that nobody but Stu and Frannie really understand what happened. Already their world has grown, their magic circle broken forever. At the end of the story, they leave Boulder behind and make for Maine, where they can be alone and apart from any newly formed human, rational society. There they will harbor their hearts, and presumably their faith, but will be forever apart from the rest of the new world.
All Things Serve The Beam
A quick programming note here: this is the part where I talk about Dark Tower biz. If you have not yet read the entirety of the Dark Tower series and that is something you would like to do (and you should!), then I would advise getting up out of here….
Okay! So it turns out The Stand happened on a fucked up level of the Tower, and I’m not sure how to parse that information, exactly. It’s a confusing thing to think about because when this book was written, Stephen King had yet to really formulate the idea of folding all of his narratives under the Dark Tower umbrella. The direct acknowledgement comes of course in Wizard and Glass, when the ka-tet rolls through a devastated Topeka after passing through a thinny. I’m not going to lie, I squee’d right out loud when I first read that part of the book. Later in the series, we’re told that there is only one keystone world – ours – and that everything else is slightly less real than that particular reality. Of course even that is subsumed by the Tower itself, but whatever. The Stand represents a struggle between the White and the Crimson King played out in another timeline. Randal Flagg, who is presented here as of this world, turns out to be Walter, hanging out and sowing chaos. Is it the same Walter? It seems so, he at least takes credit for Flagg’s “achievement.” Are there multiple versions of Walter? Or is he singular, like Roland? If there are not multiple Walters, then he is an even stranger being than as presented in the books. He’s old, and strange, and doesn’t seem to understand his own mind. This feels right, and it also makes sense that he has fully grasped the seditious and destructive nature of technology upon humanity. If he travels more or less freely through the levels of the Tower (although it can be argued that he may not consciously know how he does so, he is but an agent, after all), then he would, over the years, amass a goodly store of knowledge on this front. That he would bring all of this to bear during a social experiment like the one found in The Stand makes all the sense in the world. That he was eventually stymied by opposing forces, of course, also fall in line with the overall story of The Dark Tower. In any event, while there may some questionable details here or there, these two stories are in thematic harmony.