A couple months back, I was going through a bit of a low phase, one nearly entirely of my own making. Every day I’d get up and, in the course of going about my otherwise pretty enjoyable routine, I’d jump online and then just completely mire myself in whatever horrible news was emanating from around the globe, with a particular emphasis on the trainwreck that is American politics. I may be Canadian, but the chaos and casual cruelty that seemingly permeate every aspect of today’s American governance have cast a noxious pall across the world; we are all feeling it.
So when it came time to tackle the tenth prompt in my friend’s reading challenge, one which called for a choice from a favourite author that you’ve not yet read, I’m not surprised I gravitated towards Stephen King; he is my favourite author, yet I’ve probably only read about a third of his novels. I’m a bit more surprised that I chose an absolutely gigantic tome that’s more like three books in one; 823 abridged pages of very, very tiny text. And I was going to say I was the most surprised at my choice, King’s seminal text, The Stand (my husband called it King’s bible, a very apt comparison) but it fits both tonally and in terms of subject matter. That’s just the head space I was in when I rolled up on the tenth challenge prompt – major end-of-times bleakness.
For those not familiar with The Stand, here’s how bleak we get: 99 percent of humanity dies horribly in a flu epidemic that ravages the globe in a little under a month. The book literally kicks off with about 300 pages of mucus-filled respiratory deaths. You come to know a handful of characters (inexplicably immune, all) and then watch through their eyes as society quickly breaks down, teeters on the brink and then completely plummets off the edge. Spread out across the four corners of the United States, we follow these characters as they watch their loved ones suffer and die, and then we watch THEM suffer (and sometimes die) as they attempt to make their way to Nebraska and then on to Colorado, drawn there by prophetic dreams of an old woman who offers salvation or hope or death, or maybe all three.
And that’s just the first 400 or so pages. After that, we get into a major battle between Good and Evil, and then we meet Randall Flagg, the other Man in Black, the Walkin’ Dude, the devil. I mean, I guess he’s the devil? Or at the very least a close confidante. I just know that Flagg as a symbol of ultimate evil didn’t land for me. He’s petulant and whiny and kind of lazy; a being of such tremendous power should not be as preoccupied with appearances as he (sound like anyone else we know?) As Buffy might say, “Ooh, The Taunter – striking fear in the heart of no one.” But then again, with the exception of Under the Dome’s absolutely horrific Jim Rennie, very few of King’s baddies have left a mark with me. I think I was expecting more from his marquis villain.
This jacket cover photo, however? It’s EVERYTHING. The hair, the suit, the smoke – oh, it’s perfection!
It’s a small moment in an otherwise gigantic novel, but there’s a little bit early on in the book that strikes at the heart of what The Stand is ultimately all about. In Nebraska, 108-year-old Abigail Freemantle is setting out for her neighbour’s, a two days’ walking trip. Abby’s not paying a social visit to her neighbour, though – that would require a host or hostess to greet her, and everyone is dead. Abigail instead travels to her neighbour’s in search of chicken; on her last visit before the flu took everyone she knew, Abby had spied a few in the backyard. Moving infinitesimally slow (because she is 108-ancient-years-old) but drawing from a long lifetime of experience, Abigail dispatches two of the chickens.
Mother Abigail, a deeply religious woman with a strong, but ill-defined connection to God, falls into the realm of that tired old literary trope of the “magical negro.” I’ll give King a bit of a pass because The Stand was written in 1978. The times and sensibilities, they change. But I’m not giving myself a pass, because I fell for that aggravatingly regressive trope hook, line and sinker. When Abigail slaughters the chickens, I ignorantly wondered what sort of magical concoction she needed their blood and bones for. Then when she is walking back home and she and her bag of chicken are set upon by bloodthirsty weasels sent by Randall Flagg, I wondered what sort of ritual could be so important that she’d put her life in danger in such a way.
But I was wrong. Instead of some chicken-based hoodoo, Abigail had simply sensed that she was about to have a number of drop-in visitors (the pilgrims who had been dreaming of her just as much as she had been dreaming of them) and the chickens were so that she could have a hot, home-cooked meal waiting for them when they arrived. There was nothing more to it than connection and kindness through food. I thought it was such a charming little moment – simple, goodhearted humanity as set against seemingly insurmountable odds.
A friend recently commented that she remembered The Stand as ending on a bittersweet, slightly melancholy note, and that’s true. But there’s also an undercurrent of malice, a sense that the mistakes of the past are ones we’re powerless to prevent from happening once again. I read a lot of fear in the ending. But then again, it wouldn’t be a discussion of a Stephen King novel if you’re not debating the ending as being either sweet or completely horrifying.
This nail art aims to capture the snow-covered peaks of Colorado. Without giving too much away, the mountains factor in heavily. As does the twinkling night sky; in a world gone dark, it takes on a new, watchful meaning. Ultimately, I’m glad I decided to finally pick this one up; neglecting The Stand was a major blank spot in my Kingsian education, and I enjoyed coming at it from a forensic perspective – you can almost see the partial or nearly fully fleshed out ideas of many of his stories to come. The King bible, indeed, and an excellent read.