Character-fueled descent into 1980's post-apocalyptic America (4/5)
This is only the third King novel I’ve read aside from his collections in Skeleton Crew (1985) and Night Shift (1978). The two novels—The Shining (1977) and The Running Man (1982)—haven’t exactly been beacons of terror excellence. Perhaps this is due to King’s prose or subject matter, but the popularity of his writing has yet to make itself obvious to me. For enlightenment, I finally picked up King’s most popular novel, The Stand. Everyone I’ve spoken with says that this novel, above all his others, stands out as his best and I quote two friends when they call it a “a good read” and “his best book”.
Rear cover synopsis:
“June 16, 1985. That is when the horror began—the evil that started in a laboratory and took over America.
Those who died quickly were the luck y ones. For the scattered survivors, wandering through the country turned into a gigantic graveyard, life has become a nightmare struggle. They escaped death, but now something even more terrifying is waiting to claim them—the most fiendish force ever to see all humanity as slaves and victims. A strange, faceless, clairvoyant figure that is reaching for their very souls…”
At a government facility hidden in the desert, the green numbers on the wall suddenly turn red. A sentry posted outside the facility sees this ominous sign and, due to the failure of a small electronic part is the signaling system, the sentry is able to flee the base with seconds to spare. Within the underground base, men can be found dead where they had stood or even where they had sat eating soup—the sentry, Charles D. Campion, has unwittingly contracted the virus which had killed the base crew and fled into the desert. Later, when he crashes into a gas station island of pumps, his family is found dead and bloated with gangrene and Charles himself is oozing with phlegm, on the cusp of an agonizing death. He is Patient Zero… but the world would never know as the world is about the die.
The open, freely flowing highway and interstate system of American roads were once the arteries of holiday revelers, families of four, traveling salesmen and transient workers; rather than flowing with destinations in mind, the unfortunate individuals in the same system begin to transport the superflu away from the small desert town and into the metropolises of America. As regional and national pathologists study the virus, Atlanta’s CDC takes control of its study and the government initiates protocols to dampen the seriousness of the superflu in the eyes of the public. People begin to die; families begin to suffer and expire together; entire towns and cities begin to be littered with corpses and festering corruption.
Though the superflu—or “Captain Trips” as many people call it—acts a catalyst to worldwide pandemic, its presence soon fades to the background to those who survive. The lucky 99.4% of the population—if “lucky’ is the right word—must face an America without government, daily lives without rule or law, an existence without the modern conveniences of electricity and running water: “with civilization gone, all the chrome and geegaws had been stripped from the engine of human society” (348)… then there are the rotting corpses one must consider. The “constantly shifting A-Prime flu” weaponized by the American military is resistant to vaccine as “every time the body did produce the right antibody, the virus simply shifted” (30). But humans aren’t the only victims: humankind’s companions of dogs and horses die en masse while the innocent deer, cows, and rabbits thrive amid the stalking remnants of the blossoming feral cat population. The randomness of death is a vague mystery to the survivors, but one thing begins to penetrate their collective psyche: “God gives life and He takes it away when He wants” (324).
The sinking belief in a greater God isn’t the only common experience among the human survivors; most have also shared dreams of the saintly yet elderly Mother Abigail in Nebraska and have also shared nightmares of the darkly man in the west, who some know as Randall Flagg. After the Fourth of July weekend, bodies had amassed around the country—and probably around the world—so, the survivors followed their dreams to Nebraska to seek guidance under the woman whose mind is seemingly in contact with God. Skeptical yet desperate, lonely individuals form strengthened groups which form migrating tribes, all of which seek Nebraska and, later, Boulder, Colorado where sanity and civilization lay waiting. Yet, beyond the Rockies, another collection of humanity begins to amass without need for either sanity or civilization; Randall Flagg attracts the miscreants, the morally decayed, the dregs of human society. Rather than being touched by God like Mother Abigail, Flagg embodies evil incarnate. Between Good and Evil, the survivors “are all part of a chess game between God and Satan” (449).
Stuart is practically the first survivor of the superflu. The CDC take him to Atlanta to study his immunity and, when the facility fails, then to rural new Hampshire where eventually that facility fails, too. On his own, Stuart leaves the security of the underground facility when he meets Harold and Frannie. Frannie, pregnant from before the virus’s outbreak, tags along with a boy a few years her junior—Harold. Both young, Frannie scoffs at Harold’s awkwardness while he adores the angelic presence of Frannie. When Frannie takes a liking to Stuart, Harold spirals downward in an obsession of hate and vindictiveness. A quiet intellectual, he puts his thoughts to paper, “an outpouring of hate like pus from a skin abscess” (426). Even when the trio settle into Boulder, Harold coddles his hatred and schemes against the very community which has accepted him.
Nick is a deafmute and transient across America. He is brutalized by a band of hooligans in a small town where the sheriff takes him in. As the superflu spreads even to this small town, his attackers imprisoned by the sheriff slowly fall victim to the death by phlegm while the sheriff, too, slowly succumbs its persistence. Writing as his only method of communication, Nick had got along in the small town but leaves when everyone else he finds is dead. The one person he meets, Tom Cullen, is a simple-minded sprat who is illiterate. Regardless of their communication difficulties, Nick and Tom band together in order to find Abigail, who eventually leads them to Boulder where Nick becomes the honorific head of the Committee in its infancy. Tom, though dull-witted, is not without use.
Larry Underwood, high from his recent success as a songwriter and perhaps still drugged to this gills with cocaine, returns to New York with his tail between his legs and he realizes that his so-called friends only relished his money rather than his company. In a series of events which causes Larry’s reality to come crashing town, Larry soon realizes that he’s not a nice guy. His mother dies of the superflu and, in a city heaped with corpses, Larry decides to leave with Rita, a much older lady plagued by borderline insanity. When she overdoes on pills, Larry is pushed to the brink of losing all self-respect, but two people save him from the pit of self-despair: Lucy and “Joe”. Lucy is a proud virgin and her boyish companion, whom she calls “Joe”, is a savage who grunts and mimes. Larry is initially skeptical about having the feral boy along with them, but he bows reluctantly to Lucy’s insistence. Shames compels him to hide behind his fame yet he drudges up the silt of his self-esteem in order to become a prime mover in Boulder, Colorado. He’s also aware of the looming threat of Randall Flagg.
The demonic man named Randall Flagg stalks the American wild west, a territory which he has taken for his own. Though his plans are vague, his promises are enticing to the miscreants which litter the American landscape after its megadeath… Lloyd Hendrich is one such criminal who is played by Flagg. Locked in a prison and forgotten about, Lloyd is the only prisoner to survive the superflu but starvation is close on his heels. He has eaten the raw meat of a rat and contemplates eating the leg of a fellow prisoner when Flagg approaches the bars of his cell, offering freedom for the cost of utter loyalty. Another man, a few screws short and everyone knows it, is the Trashcan Man. A pyromaniac who failed rehabilitation, the Trashcan Man savors the newly found freedom he has to savor the sights of flames anywhere he chooses. His first choice is the oil tanks of Gary, Indiana which he ignites in a massive display of pyrotechnics, destruction and heat. Injured by his own stupidity, he relishes his long-held dream. Flagg senses the man’s obsession, welcoming him into the fold of evil.
In Boulder, Nick and the rest of the good-natured survivors are trying to salvage what’s left of Boulder’s infrastructure to make it a move livable place: resume electrical power, dispose of the bodies in a mass grave, and form a system of government based on American democratic ideals. Just when all things are beginning to improve, Mother Abigail—the backbone of faith for the fledgling community—leaves a note and disappears by herself. This deeply worries the growing community now numbered at seven hundred and growing everyday with groups being welcomed every day. In Las Vegas, Flagg and his deputy Lloyd Hendrich have revitalized the downtown area. While some may be replacing bulbs in streetlights like a common citizen, others are at an air force base arming jets with missiles… and the Trashcan Man is at the center of it all—Flagg has entrusted this psychotic man to comb the desert sniffing out caches of hidden of weapons of war.
On the horizon of both communities—in Boulder and in Las Vegas—war is perched high, a friction of ideals set to clash.
My 1980 Signet edition has 817 pages, so its size is proportional to my synopsis. As my mini-synopsis outlines, the novel is rich in plot and characterization. For the most part, this is an engrossing read that is easy to lose yourself in. First, the spread of the superflu, by itself, is an absorbing scenario with wide-reaching consequences on civilization, humanity, and on individuals. Then there’s that itchy sense of good vs. evil lurking behind their dreams—Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg—the showdown of which is still hundreds of pages away but the tension always feels fresh, grating. If the schism and frisson between good and evil aren’t enough to placate the reader, at the very least the characters make the book worthwhile; each is a unique person, not only bent by the change in civilization, but internally at war with themselves by a conflict of their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, hope and fear, etc. If you don’t like people, there’s always Kojak, one of the last dog’s on earth, who is a memorable and faithful scrap.
The only major fault in the book lies within two-hundred pages between 400 and 600, roughly. During this period, Boulder is in its early stages of developing its own system of government and having meetings to establish its own foundation. The reader is taken, step by step, through each meeting’s minutes, its parliamentary procedures, suggestions for laws and amendments, etc. Rather than a all-encompassing snapshot of the fledgling community’s attempt to restore order, King’s 200-page spread is more like a boring family photo slideshow.
There another less irksome kink in the novel which annoyed me throughout: King’s inclusion of pop culture songs and other pop culture items from the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s—being born in 1980, actually—I thought this would be an endearing quality, yet the books feels terribly dated because of the pop culture references. I mean, on the first page alone the reader is given three snippets of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult and Bob Dylan… followed later by The Sylvers (1), Paul Simon, Chuck Berry (261), America, and The Drifters (621). The music isn’t even particularly good. I’ve read online that King updated the novel in 1990 and included, dear me, an additional 400 pages of material. Pass.
As far as terror and horror are concerned, King pens a good story along these lines. Though people drop like flies by the million, most of the characters who survive seem immune to the horror just as they are immune to the superflu. I, for one, wouldn’t be sticking around all those coughing bodies and decaying corpses; I’d be one to get the hell out of Dodge, and quick. Rather than being affected by the decay of the body, the characters are most perturbed by the decay of society and the “American way of life”, almost like a loss of entitlement to their pursuit of happiness. And they act quite logically, which is the opposite of horror. If they were truly horrified by their predicament, they all would of starved to death or killed themselves (which would have resulted in a much shorter novel, surely); rather, they both mentally and collectively organize themselves to push to toward Nebraska and Colorado. There’s a tinge of terror of what always awaits them, but horror… not so much.
While this is my favorite of King’s work thus far, it’s not a masterpiece of fiction, terror or horror. It is, however, a compelling read into characterization and a tantalizing piece of post-apocalyptic fiction akin to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). In my shelves, there only remains one last King novel: The Tommyknockers (1987). I’m tempted to buy Thinner (1984) and Under the Dome (2009), but there isn’t much else in King’s bibliography which really draws me.