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: 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

Exit Music (for a Horror Film) (31DC2016)

children-of-the-corn

This manicure, my entry towards day 10’s theme of a gradient in the 31 Day Nail Art Challenge, totally looks like the background to the cover art of a 1980s horror movie. Children of the Corn or one of its innumerable sequels (I’ve actually never seen any of them, although the Stephen King short story on which the original was based is one of my favourites.)

I’m not much for horror movies these days.  There’s an element of cruelty to most of them that I find absolutely reprehensible – one of my great hates in life is torture porn.  But when I was a kid I loved them, in the way you do when Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is the backdrop to your first slumber party, or when you make your dad come and stand outside your bedroom door while you’re changing into your pjs in the highly likely event that Jason Voorhees is hiding beneath your bed with a machete, or when you give yourself nightmares for about two solid weeks after simply reading the movie synopsis on the back of the VHS cassette for Sleepaway Camp.  Simpler – yet somehow scarier – times.

A Rip in the Very Fabric of Time (31DC2015)

Time Rip Front

Right, so these nails might look a bit more Eye of Sauron than I had originally contemplated. This manicure, which I did at the behest – the BEHEST, I tell you! – of day 24’s theme of books in the 31 Day Nail Art Challenge, is supposed to be the rainbow-hued rip in the fabric of time that a plane of passengers encounters in the 1990 Stephen King novella, The Langoliers. King employs a lot of his favourite linguistic tropes in describing the time rip (“It filled his mind, his nerves, his muscles, his very bones in a gigantic, coruscating fireflash” and “The place where life is freshly minted every second of every day; the cradle of creation and the wellspring of time”) but the bottom line is it’s gigantic, lined with flashing rainbows and if you fly through it, well…I won’t spoil this 25-year-old story for anyone, but it’s a Stephen King tale, so go in knowing that at least 60 percent of your favourite characters will die horribly. Happy reading!

Time Rip Side

Pink Stars Falling in Lines (31DC2015)

PinkStars 1

Just a little Stephen King nail art joke for you there. Oh man, Under the Dome…what a shit show you were! I am, of course, talking about the recently cancelled television show and not the novel, which is not only my favourite Stephen King book, but one of my favourite works of literature, period. Clocking in at a massive 1,072 pages, Under the Dome might seem like the kind of tome that’s more burden than pleasure, but thanks to a gigantic, engaging collection of Kingsian characters (the old timer! the town drunk! the precocious 12-year-old with off-the-charts extrasensory abilities and two soon-to-be-dead parents!), an absolutely vile, yet unbelievably compelling, bad guy whose misdeeds (too mild a word, that) made me throw the book across the room in disgust on more than one occasion (my walls may say differently, but that’s actually a good thing) and rapid fire pacing, it clips along. I tore through it in three otherwise totally unproductive days. It’s a marvel of writing and structure, and absolutely his best work to date.

But that TV show…oof. I never watched more than two episodes (checked out, in fact, during the cow/slice scene in the pilot, which looked like it cost about $12) but I still like to rage about what could have been. Which was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, summer television event, the kind of pop culture moment you never forget. But instead of sticking to the bones of the story, which depicts one hellish week of socio-political wrangling, environmental destruction and far right-induced chaos in a small town suddenly trapped under a mysterious, impenetrable dome, CBS doubled down on the novel’s dumber, less tangible aspects (ie. the supernatural element, which is practically besides the point in the book), pooping out a laughably bad and stupidly bland show that shares little in common with the source material, but for a title. It’s the World War Z of television.

And, you know, it really didn’t have to play out that way. To go back to my earlier point, just imagine what could have been! Despite its size, and a cast of characters that numbers in the hundreds, Under the Dome’s overarching (heh) story is a tight, crisp one – it would have required very little editing to adapt the novel for television. There was no need to deviate so violently from the source material. And to that end, it wasn’t necessary to strip that gigantic, engaging cast of characters of every bit of individuality they possessed, nor was it necessary to round off the ages of absolutely everyone in town to a more demographically acceptable 20 – 45 years old. And there are no words to accurately convey my disgust at the neutering of Big Jim, Under the Dome’s horrifying real world villain.

Such a disappointment all around, and born of pure greed on the part of CBS. Here’s how it should have played out, according to my highly unbiased, totally non-screed-like opinion: Under the Dome should have been an eight to 10-hour miniseries. The events of the book play out over eight days – one hour per day of dome time, with a couple of extra hours tacked on for the ending, which I will not spoil for you, even all these years later, but I assure you, is impressive in its totality. Then, when the show proved to be a huge success – and it would; of that I am certain – they could look into a series that deals with the events pre-dome, post-dome or intra-dome, just from a different character’s (or characters’) perspective. Instead we got four years of totally nonsensical, barely watchable shit. It still pisses me off (clearly!)

But maybe back to the nail art for a quick sec? These nails are in service of day 12’s theme of stripes in the 31 Day Nail Art Challenge. In Under the Dome, the book, as the air becomes less and less breathable (thanks to soot-producing fires, plain old respiration and maybe that secret meth operation out in the woods?), the young and elderly begin having seizures, falling on the ground and babbling nonsense about “pink stars falling in lines” and the burning Great Pumpkin. Turns out it’s not nonsense at all, but again, spoilers. 😉 The pink stars, of course, have a very different meaning to the television show – something about a mystical egg in the lake that hatches into a butterfly who becomes a woman who’s somebody’s sister or mother? Yeah, I know about as much as you do! Anyhow, these are my pink stars falling in lines, or little pink star charms falling in lines.

Tango-Light

Lava Bottle

Author Stephen King has a beautiful term for this type of type of fire-licked colour: Tango-light.  In his short story “1408” published in 2002’s Everything’s Eventual anthology, King’s protagonist, Mike Enslin, a man who writes about real life occult phenomena but doesn’t actually believe, checks into New York City’s Hotel Dolphin in order to spend one night in its rumoured-to-be-haunted room 1408 (and what do those four little numbers add up to?)  I don’t think I’m spoilering anything by saying that of course things don’t go well, and by the end of the tale, Enslin is very much a believer.  But at one point, while walking around the room recording such mundane facts as the colour and quality of the finishings, Enslin’s eye lights on a framed still life of fruit cast in a sweltering yellow-orange glow that he describes as “Tango light…the kind of light that makes the dead get up out of their graves and tango.”  It’s such an evocative term, perfectly describing that almost sickly and sweaty looking hue that falls across the sky in those last few moments before the sun slips below the horizon.

Granted, “sickly looking” and “possibly haunted and trying to kill me” are never terms you want to apply to your nail polish (or your hotel rooms), but if the possessed shoe fits!  Here I’ve shown Sally Hansen’s Lustre Shine in Lava, a gorgeous pink-to-copper-to-gold multichrome that reminds me in the very best way of King’s tango-light, just, you know, without all the other unnecessary supernatural unpleasantness. 😉

By the way, don’t rely on the movie 1408 (starring John Cusack) to give you the full 1408 experience. Like nearly all optioned Stephen King properties (oh, am I EVER still smarting from TV’s criminally stupid Under the Dome!) it shares little in common with its source material. The short story is a wee little thing – just 52 pages in paperback! – and so taut, building to fantastic climax that gives a whole new meaning to the term “near-miss.” So do yourself a favour this summer and spend a couple of hours one evening scaring the ever-loving crap out of yourself – your sense of frightened whimsy will be better off for it, and you’ll never look at a sunset the same way again.Lava OutsideLava Shade