Thursday, April 09, 2020

Review of Stephen King's The Stand

I read The Stand when I was a teenager, a time when I think I read his first ten books by about age 15. That's a long time ago, so I didn't remember the details of the story, but I remembered how much it grabbed me and I've considered rereading it numerous times, demurring because it's so long. Ironically, a virus gave me more time and made it seem quite timely. It's a great book, even the second time roughly 35 years later.

The onset of the deadly superflu bears no resemblance to what we're going through now. It was so contagious people caught it immediately and died quickly. There was no stay-at-home, no real containment, just mass death to the point that people died in their cars on the interstate on their way out of town. Despite the superficial similarities to today, the devastation (the vast majority of everyone dead) keeps it in horror territory. The book is a big good vs. evil story with an apocalyptic backdrop.

Given the fact that the U.S. government was responsible for creating the flu and its carelessness let it loose, there is remarkably little discussion among the characters about politics. In the Free Zone, people talk about adherence to the constitution, and the best way to organize themselves, but nothing about what had failed before, or anger toward a clearly incompetent and heavyhanded government. There's just a bit at the very end about the slow return of armed law enforcement, with a whiff of "wouldn't it be nice if we all lived in small communities where we all just got along?"

Contrast that to Stephen King on Twitter now, as he rails against Donald Trump. Politics matters, but for some reason not so much to the characters. And, incidentally, international politics comes in just ever so briefly, as Randall Flagg contemplates things: "There might be another like him in Russia, or China, or Iran, but that was a problem for ten years from now" (p. 699). Other characters have similar fleeting thoughts, but no one has any idea (or much care) for what's happening outside the U.S.

And why do people follow Randall Flagg? The answer for King runs essentially along fascist lines--in times of uncertainty, people want a strong leader who get the trains going on time (this line is literally used), gives them a clear enemy to focus on and, even more importantly, seems like he's going to win. Flagg's appeal waned because people began to see failure, which made them wonder if he was going to win after all. He could be as horrible as he wanted as long as people perceived him as winning. That, more than the virus, is the relevance of the book to today.


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