Sunday 3 April 2016

Book Club: Katie and Judith read Stephen King's The Stand - Book 1.

After finishing reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell at the beginning of March, you'd think I'd whizz through a load of the shorter books on my to-read shelf. But instead, I launched almost immediately into one of the biggest novels in any bookshop, Stephen King's epic The Stand. But not alone. This time I'm reading in company, with my best friend Judith (who beat me to the one and only copy in the library, so I had to buy my own. It was free on Waterstone's points, though, so I'm not complaining.) From time to time, Judith and I hold our own two-person book club, and this time I've made enough notes to share with you, you lucky, lucky people.

Spoiler warning: As a multi-part discussion, this will contain a lot more detail than a normal review.

Expectations and Surprises:

  • I knew very little about The Stand when I started reading it. All I knew was that it was a post-apocalyptic novel set after a super-flu wipes out most of the world's populations, and that its villain, Randall Flagg, is one of Stephen King's biggest baddies, and that he pops up in several other of King's novels in different guises, and also that there is some crossover with the Dark Tower series, of which I've read the first two books. As such, I won't be surprised if I see him there later on - and am not certain he hasn't already been mentioned.
  • I had images in my head of desert wasteland, of lots of people walking, of ravens and crows.
  • Judith has read The Stand before, probably at least ten years ago, and she was surprised at how long it took to set the scene; she had forgotten that we see so much of what the world was like before the flu virus, nicknamed "Captain Trips" set in. We get through the length of an ordinary book (about 400 pages) introducing the protagonists in their ordinary or not-so-ordinary lives, going about their business and facing their own challenges, big and little, before the virus breaks in and disrupts everything. I found myself so engrossed in the characters' stories that I'd almost forget about the main plot until King would remind us at the end of a chapter, and show how the virus is spreading from one person, across the country and to the entire world.

The characters

  • The designated protagonists are the survivors from each of the different subplots: Stu, one of the first to come into contact with "Captain Trips," Frannie, a college student who has just found out she's expecting a baby, Larry, a rock star with one hit record who has found himself in financial trouble, and Nick, a deaf and mute wanderer who had just found a place for himself, when the flu came to town, leaving him the last survivor. He was our favourite character, a guy who's had a bad lot in life, but who has made the best of things. A thoroughly Good Egg. (Great. He's going to die, isn't he? Probably in some kind of heroic sacrifice to save the world. He's that sort of character.)
  • Then there's Lloyd, who is simply repulsive, a criminal who has got mixed up in robbery and murder, and who found himself quite pleased with his new bad-guy image in jail... right up to the point at which he discovers he's facing the death sentence. It's difficult to feel sorry for Lloyd, and yet, once the flu hits and he's left alone in his cell, you wouldn't wish that onto anyone. Then Randall Flagg turns up. "Pleased to meet you!" he says, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I had already jotted down that very line (followed by "hope you've guessed my name") after reading the first couple of pages featuring Flagg. 
  • Nick might be my favourite character, and Judith's, but Larry Underwood seems the most complex, with the biggest "journey" ahead of him. He's not a good man, and deep inside, he knows that. He's weak-willed, selfish, often unkind. His own mother described him as a "taker." She loved him dearly, could see there was good inside him - but wished he'd do more to get in touch with that goodness. Already, The Stand is shaping up to have a big Good vs Evil conflict going on, with some characters falling each side of the divide. Larry could go either way. I predict that, ultimately, he'll be on the "good" side, but it'll be a long hard struggle for him.
  • Towards the end of book 1, the survivors are just starting to meet up with others, and we've got the beginnings of a new secondary cast. Frannie travels with her late best friend's little brother, Harold Lauder. He's a weird kid, pompous and nerdy, an intelligent teenager, a weird mixture of child and man. But at the end of part one, he shows some worrying, rather creepy tendencies. It's clear he's got a crush on Frannie, who is five years his senior, and feels protective towards her, but that protectiveness shows itself in a worrying, potentially dangerous way, when they meet up with Stu, betraying his feelings as a possessiveness that Judith described as thoroughly repulsive.


  • When Frannie comes home to tell her parents about her pregnancy, her mother and father show two very different approaches to morality in life. Her mother is very religious, with a rigid moral code - and utterly loveless, a very nasty woman. By contrast, her father is a gentle sort of man, who does not like to contradict his wife, but prefers a peaceful life. He lives his life by logic, science, reason. Yet, when it comes to Frannie's baby, he is surprised that his opinions are driven not by logic, or by generations of rules and laws, but by his emotions. I pondered on what kind of moral code will be of more use when building a new civilisation from scratch.
  • Judith's example was of a train heading towards five people on the railway track. If you had the power to flick a switch and save them, but by doing so, kill one person on the siding, would you do that? The logical answer is that one person dying is better than five, that, to quote Spock, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." But, according to a book she'd been reading (she did not name it) that is a psychopath's answer; most people's consciences would feel worse about killing one person by one's actions, even to save five, than to let them die through one's inaction, because they would die anyway. (And I decided that I didn't like either option, and that I'd just shout "GET OFF THE LINE!" because, to use another Wrath of Khan quote, "I don't believe in no-win scenarios.") But as for what sort of moral code will be the foundation of a new civilisation, and its strengths and weaknesses, we'll have to wait and see.
The Collapse of Civilisation
  • I chose the wrong time to read The Stand; when a vicious strain of flu and colds was doing its rounds, making me feel quite uneasy. But I also wondered about whether The Stand could be viewed as an allegory, or a warning, of anything else that might cause society to collapse. I looked up the poem that some of the characters discussed, W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," which was written after the First World War, or could also refer to the political situation of Ireland at the time. It's full of end-of-the-world imagery, and I felt that it sets the tone for the entire book. In the middle of the 20th century, people feared nuclear war could bring about the end of life as we know it, and I even thought about the UK of the moment, with the government making cuts upon cuts upon cuts, to the health service, to welfare for the disabled, the poor, the young, the old. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. How much more can this go on?
  • And Judith has been reading about all the old lost civilisations, where the top ends have grown more and more prosperous, the gulf between rich and poor grown wider and wider, until  -Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
  • Bateman, one of the people met along the way, serves as Mr Exposition, predicting a rather pessimistic future of small societies destroying each other. 
  • The most horrifying thing about The Stand is that the "Captain Trips" virus was entirely man-made, a biologically-engineered weapon. And the question raised is why? Who would be stupid enough to make something that would practically wipe out the entire world - and make no antidote? Yet it's entirely believable. Always, nations are making bigger and more horrifying weapons that they never expect to use, just to prove to actual and potential enemies that they're not to be messed with. But in this case, all it takes is one person getting out and doing the natural thing of running for it.
  • And what is worse: "Rome falls." They've got agents with phials of the germ all over the world. When it's too late for America, the whole world is going down too. I just don't understand that. Is it an attempt to stop anyone asking questions, to preserve the American military's reputation, even though they're too dead to care about the rest of the world's judgement? Horrific.
The Dreams:
  • The main characters have all started to have nightmares of Randall Flagg in a high place, most clearly in Nick's dream of being offered his hearing and a voice. It's an obvious biblical reference to Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. 
  • By contrast, Nick has also dreamed of a ripe cornfield in Nebraska, and an old lady known as Mother Abagail. Judith was a bit confused by the cornfield, as she was sure it was supposed to symbolise innocence, nostalgia, simpler times - but, despite living on an Island with lots of farmland, it didn't have any personal associations for her. For me, the fertile farmland was set up as a contrast to the desert: life instead of death, good instead of evil.
In Conclusion:

By the end of book one, only a couple of the many characters introduced so far have met up, and they are all wandering fairly aimlessly. Nick is heading for Nebraska, Fran, Harold and Stu heading for Vermont, and I think Larry's in the same state, but has not met up with the rest. They are coming closer, but still in small clusters of people, nowhere near forming a society. I'd had the idea that The Stand would form one community, or maybe two (one good, one evil) but if so, it's still a good way into the future. Maybe, instead, it's an epic along the lines of Game of Thrones with the characters scattered all across the continent. I kind of wish I'd got a map where I could mark out all the characters' journeys, and where they are in relation to each other. 400-odd pages in, and we're at the point where I'd imagined the book to begin! Not that I mind; what I like best about Stephen King's good works is that he does take time just getting to know the characters, setting them up and drawing you in, making you care before throwing everything he's got at them. 

If you've read The Stand you're very welcome to add any thoughts to the comments below. I'll be posting our thoughts on the first half of Book 2 on Friday.

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