Literary Inspiration: The Stand

The Stand Collage

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.

The Stand book and nails

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!

The Stand book jacket

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.

The Stand nails

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.

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Literary Inspiration: The New Hunger

Warm Bodies Collage

First off, reading challenge assessment time.  Grade received: Total crap!  Because I’ve read just 10 books out of a possible 24.  And I can only lay so much blame at the feet of Stephen King, whose gigantic tomes I’ve already read in service of two of the challenge themes.  Reading for pleasure (instead of panic, ie. whatever horrifying news is coming out of American politics this hour) is just not an activity I gravitate towards any more.  I wish I knew why that need to read has departed – I was a voracious reader when I was a kid – but hopefully it will return.

Until then, there are infinitely worse ways to pass the hours than in the broken but healing, dying but not yet dead world of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies.  And so for the ninth challenge prompt – a story that takes you to another place and time, real or imagined – I chose The New Hunger, a prequel novella from Marion set in the Warm Bodies universe.

If you’ve only seen the 2013 Warm Bodies movie, you can be forgiven for assuming that The New Hunger is a trifle of a book.  I liked the film – correction: I like Nicholas Hoult, will watch him in virtually anything, although I recommend the sexy-as-hell Equals – but there really wasn’t very much there.  It was an enjoyable watch, but a tepid shadow of 2010’s fiery novel (which I see that Wikipedia has sorted into both the post-apocalyptic and gothic fiction tags, neat.)  But the movie – quite apart from some major changes to the story – failed to capture the beleaguered optimism of the novel, distilling R and Julie’s passionate, revolutionary call-to-arms down to a simple Romeo and Juliet story, with zombies.  I adored the book; it’s one of the best things I’ve read in decades, but the film adaptation did it, and the deeply layered Warm Bodies universe, no terrific favours.  Isaac Marion is a fantastic writer – his prose is tidy and to-the-point, peppered with heartbreakingly poignant observations about war, politics, geo-political turmoil, man’s inhumanity to man, life, death and all those other terrifically lightweight subjects.  Warm Bodies, the novel, deserved more.

So a trifle it is not, and neither is The New Hunger, a 2013 prequel novella set in the four or five years before R, Julie, Nora and M make their last stand in Stadium City.  I actually read this book when it was first released via e-reader in 2013.  Scared the crap out of me; the last 10 or so pages left me breathless, wide-eyed, shocked.  As always, I can’t say more than that without spoiling this excellent, taut little examination of the downfall (and subsequent resurrection) of man, but the book links our four main characters years before they ever meet face to face – R, newly awoken as a reluctant zombie desperately clinging to the last vestiges of rational thought; Julie, 12-years-old, living out of her parents’ armored truck and dreaming of the kind of stable childhood she was never allowed to enjoy; M dying alone in the bathroom of the Space Needle; and finally Nora, 16-years-old, on a trek across the flooded port of Seattle in search of food, shelter and safety.

The New Hunger Cover

The bulk of The New Hunger concerns itself with Nora’s story, which ends in a place no less bleak than its beginning.  After years of global crises, nuclear war, destructive political posturing and rising sea levels (sound frighteningly familiar?) humanity has reached its breaking point.  Then, as the final flaming cherry on the end-of-times sundae, the dead rise up to drag the few remaining down.  In the midst of all this – abandoned cities, deserted safe zones, looters and cultists and much, much worse – Nora and her little brother, Addison, have been dumped in a Seattle suburb by their junkie parents.  Nora wakes one morning to find that they’ve simply left, taking all the food and weapons with them.  Nora tries to tell herself that they probably committed that final atrocious act out of some concern that two kids left alone with a gun are bound to hurt or kill themselves with that gun, but she knows better – her parents didn’t give a shit, cared more about their final score than they ever did about their own children.  It’s heartbreaking.

And real.  Maybe a bit too real given some of the realities of today.  I said before that this book genuinely scared the crap out of me.  It did back in 2013, and it continues to frighten me today, albeit for different reasons beyond “ooh, zombies, scary.”  It’s all hitting just a little bit too close to home.  Truly, absent the living dead, Marion’s template of the downfall of humanity seems to be one we’re following note for note these days.  Takes a bit of joy out of post-apocalyptic literature, that.

But you get your kicks where you can, and for me, that always means accompanying nail art, here my approximation of the flooded, fog-shrouded Seattle skyline Nora and Addison cross on their path to what just has to be something better.  Something I think we could all work towards – something better.

Seattle Silhouette

 

Literary Inspiration: Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book

Ben and Jerry's Collage

I’ll concede straight off the top that my choice of this little cookbook, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book, is an odd one in satisfaction of the seventh prompt in my friend Julie’s reading challenge.  The task was to tackle a book from which you learn something (you know, other than that you’ve really outgrown chick lit.)  I immediately thought about this bitty little cookbook that my parents gave me when I was maybe nine or 10 years old.  Which, for those keeping score at home, means I’ve had this book – a bargain bin find of less than $1.50 in 1987 on account of the small notch in the upper right-hand corner of the cover – for 31 years. This book has seen things, man. Specifically, it’s seen a LOT of action – this is the cookbook from which my much-beloved chocolate chip cookies are birthed (your standard chocolate chip cookie recipe, but there’s just something to them that makes people lose their minds a bit when they’re in their presence.  I can’t share the recipe with you, because then I’d have to kill you.)

But all great things aside, it’s an odd choice in that The Story of Ben & Jerry’s that kicks off the book – a very entertaining, informative read about the duo’s early years – is just 17 pages long, and the rest is recipes.  Easy-to-follow recipes that produce delicious results, as I can attest across about a dozen different ice creams and desserts, but recipes all the same.  Also, it’s a book I’ve had in my life forever, and when I started this reading challenge, one of the stipulations I made was that all of the books I chose were going to be from my to-be-read pile, and I have absolutely enjoyed this cookbook – both the recipes and the cute, witty little story that kicks off the book – time and time again.  So I may have to revisit the seventh prompt in this reading challenge with a slightly beefier, newer read (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil Degrasse Tyson is on my hit list.)

Ben and Jerry's Book with Nails

But this book is such a charming little treat, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to do another inspired-by manicure.

Ben and Jerry's Nails

And there’s also much to be learned from this book, with its rags-to-slightly-ritzier-rags origin story, really fantastic recipes (I’ll never understand the voodoo that those chocolate chip cookies hoodoo, but wow, do people love the results) and adorable illustrations.  I have always loved the graphic design of this book, with its bubbly lettering, hand-drawn characters and bright colour palette.  It’s so. darn. cute.

Ben and Jerry's Pages Collage

Definite problem, though, particularly when you’re trying to watch your diet: reading Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book WILL make you ravenously hungry for creamy sweets, in the way that reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will make you want to immediately eat a chocolate bar or watching Pulp Fiction will make you want to devour whatever the hell a Big Kahuna burger is (surely not just me.)  But a small pittance to pay for such a cute and entertaining read. 🙂

Literary Inspiration: Duma Key

Duma Key Main Collage

Or Pet Sematary II: The Golden Years: But not Maine this time; Florida.  ‘Twas too weighty a title, however, so Duma Key it was. 😉

So for those curious as to how I’m doing on my friend Julie’s reading challenge – terribly! I am doing terribly. I’m not even 10 books through the 24-strong list of challenge themes, and that’s in part because I keep picking gigantic tomes like this one, another 700-page Stephen King bruiser that takes you from Minnesota to Florida and back again, with stops at Insanity Isle and It’s Raining Frogs Junction in between.  I think Duma Key nicely satisfies the “Cover art that draws you in” test Julie laid down for the challenge – I particularly like the partially submerged, holographic lettering of King’s name.

Duma Key Cover Collage

The basics: Duma Key is about – and told from the perspective of – 50-something Edgar Freemantle, construction company president, formerly of Minnesota, now of Duma Key, Florida. There are a lot of “formerlies” in Edgar’s life at the beginning of the novel – former job, former marriage, former body, the latter down one right arm following a gruesome workplace accident.  But it’s not so much the physical afflictions – the amputated arm, the pulverized ribs – that trouble Edgar’s mind, it’s Edgar’s mind itself, which, damaged just as badly as his physical body, turns toward anger, confusion and random, violent outbursts in the wake of his terrible accident.  Most of the people in Edgar’s life stand by him during this upsetting time, but many do not.

After his wife leaves him, one of Edgar’s therapists asks him if he ever enjoyed any kind of creative outlet as a younger man.  Edgar replies that before he devoted his life to the construction company that made him a millionaire many times over, he liked to draw, had even once entertained the notion of going to art school. Agreeing that art is an important part of both physical and mental therapies, the doctor suggests Edgar take up drawing once again, and maybe seek out a major change in location while he’s at it.

And so Edgar moves to Duma Key, Florida, a rather runty, overgrown spit of land clinging desperately to the Gulf Coast, taking up residence at a gigantic, rose-hued house-on-stilts he affectionately dubs Big Pink. Inspired by the gorgeously lurid Gulf sunsets, Edgar begins to paint.  At night the creeping tide makes the shells that build up beneath the house clatter together, and they sound like bones.  Or voices.

Duma Key 1

And I won’t go any further than that, because to do so would ruin the Kingsian journey and that aggravatingly persistent – but still enjoyable – feeling that you, the reader, are being inexorably driven toward something you’re not entirely sure you want to discover. It actually reminded me very much of Pet Sematary in that way – another story of family, those we’re bound to by blood and those by choice, and the grim decisions we’re forced to make to preserve those bonds.  Also ghosts, the discovery of a late-in-life mentor type, middle-of-the-night visits from should-be-dead people, a sassy, prescient old person, and endless marches through claustrophobic underbrush.

Also a lot of Surrealism – of the artistic variety, although I think that’s a pretty apt descriptor for the entirety of Duma Key.  I definitely felt like my head had been messed with a trifle after I finished the book, a comfortably uncomfortable feeling that lets you know you’ve really discovered something special.  Very enjoyable, even if I “Whuuuuuuu?”‘d the ending hard.  Wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel if the final pages didn’t leave you deeply perplexed, I suppose.

Literary Inspiration: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box Collage

You’re a child of the 1990s if you can’t read that title without thinking about Nirvana, but here at least I’m talking about the novel Heart-Shaped Box, a ghost story penned by author Joe Hill.  Hill is actually the nom de plume adopted by Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen.  You probably have heard of him; think he’s written at least one or two things over the years. 😉

Heart-Shaped Box satisfies the “found fortune” requirement of my friend Julie’s reading challenge; I plucked this dog-eared paperback off the shelf of my building’s community “library” (AKA The Dumping Grounds of Grisham, Connelly, Steele, Grafton and Patterson.) That another person in my building, where the average age is about 75, read this rough-and-tumble, punk rock story about an aging rocker fleeing the ghosts of his past is nothing short of amazing to me – I thought all literature in this place began and ended with well-worn copies of Judith Krantz’s Scruples flopping open to the raunchily vanilla sex scenes.

Right, so the deets.  Wealthy, semi-retired, not-quite-washed-up goth rocker Judas Coyne purchases a haunted suit off an online auction site as a lark.  And a lark is all it is; Judas doesn’t actually buy into the goth trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that has made him a household name.  But something about owning a vintage, possibly ghost-inhabited suit speaks to both the darker AND lighter parts of his soul, and he happily places a bid.

When the suit shows up, neatly folded in a black, heart-shaped candy box, but reeking of the grave and stuck through with sharp, invisible sewing pins (one of which badly pricks his girlfriend’s thumb) the bloom is off the rose.  Judas orders the suit from his sight, but as these things go, bad things never stay down for long, do they?  And the suit is a very bad thing, indeed, as was its previous owner, a sadistic hypnotist who blames Judas for driving his step-daughter – one of the rocker’s many ex-paramours – to suicide.

Heart-Shaped Box Fingers

What follows is a hybrid of the “haunted” novel –  haunted house, haunted road, haunted past, haunted soul – as Judas, his lady Georgia and their two dogs, Angus and Bon, hit the road in a desperate attempt to shake the vengeful ghost nipping at their heels (and hands; Heart-Shaped Box is nothing if not a story preoccupied with brutal, disfiguring hand injuries.  It’s really one of the odder literary quirks I’ve ever encountered.)

To that end, while reading this book, I tried very hard not to fall into the trap of comparing Hill’s work to that of his father’s – it’s an unfair comparison, and one I’ve no doubt he’s been subject to his entire life.  But I’m incredibly familiar with his father’s literary quirks (the graciously grumpy old-timer delivering reams of folksy dialogue, the prescient 12-year-old as a stand-in for the author’s younger self, an aggravating tendency to telegraph major character deaths hundreds of pages in advance) and for the most part, Hill avoids them. His writing is smoother than dear old dad’s, for one thing, the story paying out in an easy, lyrical, constantly-moving fashion. His characters are also more surefooted than his father’s – in King’s novels, when the going gets tough, the tough go insane.  But in Heart-Shaped Box, when confronted with the things that go bump in the night, Hill’s characters just accept it – “Turns out ghosts are real.  Now what are we going to do about it?” It’s refreshingly proactive.

But those rough bits of literary grit are what make King’s novels so beloved in the first place – the perfect imperfectness of the truly weird and wonderful.  Hill deals in a similar sort of marketplace, but it’s a tidy, sanitized one as compared to his father’s junk store of the mind.  Which makes for a really well-written story that clips along like a house on fire, but also lacks any real permanence – once I return Heart-Shaped Box to the solarium library, I probably won’t ever seek it out again.

This tie-in manicure hits all of Heart-Shaped Box’s broader themes – blood, leather and rock ‘n’ roll (especially the leather, here Nails Inc.’s Leather Effect in Noho, a cool textured polish.)

Heart-Shaped Box Collage Bottle

Literary Inspiration: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend Collage

The fifth prompt in my friend Julie’s reading challenge was to tackle a book in your to-be-read pile that you’ve overlooked time and time again.  For me, that’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), a hilarious collection of sweetly horrifying true life tales from blogger Jenny Lawson.  My best friend gave me this book years ago, after assuring me that I’d find more than a little in common with Lawson’s various embarrassments, and probably also piss myself from laughter.  And so taking her recommendation to great heart, I promptly stuck the book on the shelf beneath four other things and then totally forgot about it.  Slick.

But some gentle nudging in the form of this reading challenge encouraged me to release this forgotten gem from bookshelf purgatory, and I’m glad I did, because Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was hella funny. Lawson gets a lot of mileage out of a very unique childhood, one that mirrored a lot of moments in my own rural upbringing, only writ extra large and super bloody.  Seriously, there are SO many stories involving taxidermized animals and her crazy Viking father’s penchant for traumatizing his daughters with pelt-centric pranks.  It takes a special kind of writer to wring the humour and humanity out of a dead dog story, and yet Lawson manages it.  I tittered throughout and was sad when I finished the final chapter.  Thankfully, my friend gifted me with Lawson’s follow-up book, which is also currently languishing on my shelf, though not for much longer.

This manicure is inspired by the inside cover art of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a 1950s-style collection of hand-drawn pigs, foxes and raccoons in various states of repose (if by “repose” you mean setting up a lighting rig.)  They’re probably stuffed.  Everything in this book seems to come back to taxidermy in one fashion or another!

Let's Pretend Nails

I employed a bit of animal fakery in this mani myself, eschewing my normal free-handed approach for an attempt at stamping (key word here being “attempt,” because lordy, do I suuuuuuccccck at stamping.)  I used MoYou London’s Enchanted stamping plate #14, which features a charming assortment of twee little animal designs, including a sweet pug design I stamped onto my index finger in honour of Lawson’s dearly – and somehow hilariously – departed pug, Barnaby Jones Pickles.  In solid black as against an ivory creme, OPI’s My Vampire is Buff, I think the overall effect looks a bit like faded print on a slightly yellowed page of your favourite, much loved book.  So pretty much perfect inspiration. 🙂

Let's Pretend Stamping Plate