Spoiler alert: This post goes into a lot more detail than a general review. My literature-brain is at work.
Book one of The Stand saw most of the world's population killed by a super-deadly, weaponised version of the 'flu, engineered by the US military, and accidentally released into its own population. The few survivors are scattered and wandering, a few of them teaming up while looking for somewhere to go, something to do, now the world as they know it has come crashing down. They are being haunted by strange dreams and dark nightmares, seeming to call to them from across the country...
- Book one let us get to know the main cast of The Stand: Larry and Stu, Frannie and Nick, with glimpses into the lives of a couple of the bad guys, and brief sightings of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg, and an old lady called Mother Abagail, who seems to be his opposite number. Now we've figured them out, it's time to bring in a new supporting cast, to replace all the friends-and-relations wiped out by the virus.
- The problem I found is that the new characters do not yet feel as fully-formed as those we've already spent time befriending (or whatever the opposite is.) All the groups of travellers are getting bigger, but with each chapter bringing in a new point-of-view, both Judith and I found ourselves needing to take a little time reminding ourselves of which newcomers were travelling with which old faces.
- We both found the narrative's treatment of the women newbies a little troubling. Nick, the Generally Good Egg, meets Julie, but as soon as she is introduced to his other companion, the simple-minded Tom Cullen, she stirs up trouble between them and Nick's dismissal of her (but not until after he's slept with her because of course) seems uncharacteristically brutal. I get that she was a troublemaker, I didn't like her right from the start, and obviously he's meant to have seen something inside her that is dangerous, but... I dunno. She felt very much like a lazy use of the "evil seductress" trope rather than a real person, and it didn't quite sit right with me.
- And Judith was bothered by Larry's treatment of Lucy. He's "in love with" Nadine, but not so much that if he can't get together with her, he won't make do with Lucy as second best. Lucy, too, seemed like a trope, rather than a character: the woman who is with a man who doesn't love her, because she doesn't expect any better. Judith's read a lot of bad sci-fi ("or good sci-fi by men who know nothing about women") and is so familiar with and so tired of that kind of two-dimensional character.
- Of all the new characters, though, Nadine is the most interesting. I didn't trust her, right from the start; sneaking around behind Larry, rather than introducing herself to him. But on the surface, she seems decent enough: she loves children, doesn't believe in violence, is a virgin well into her thirties. And then it turns out she and the dark man go way back... Oh, she's never met him, as far as I can tell, but she's been dreaming of him since long before Captain Trips. Like Larry, she's walking the fine line between good and evil, but where Larry seems bad but will probably end up a hero, I have a very bad feeling about Nadine's plotline. I do not think it will end well at all.
Doubles and contrasts
- My English Literature brain has noticed a lot of pairs, doubles and contrasts throughout this page. You've got the people dreaming of both Abagail and Flagg, with their heaven-and-hell symbolism, and I've just highlighted how I can see Nadine acting as a dark mirror for Larry's character development. Then we've got Tom Cullen and the Trashcan Man - both a little broken, but one all goodness and one all bad.
- The Stand is not the first "post-Apocalyptic" book I've read; there do seem to be a lot of them about, but this is unusual in really living up to the description. It's surprisingly religious in some ways, with a good-versus-evil battle for souls, and a lot of biblical imagery. And we've had Pestilence, or Plague, and Death. War is coming, and Judith has a bad feeling about their preparations against Famine.
- Early on in the book, two characters discuss the weird phenomenon of trains and planes involved in accidents not being full to capacity, with a consistently higher no-show rate than those vehicles that reach their destinations OK. I'd heard a lot of stories about people who should have been on the trains and bus bombed in London in 2005, and Judith confirmed this: both her sister and her aunt ought to have been on the same train. One was early, the other late!
- Boulder, Colorado, where the good guys eventually settle was a lot emptier than most of the towns the protagonists have passed through. Maybe the inhabitants thought they could escape the plague. But the plague was everywhere by the end. It seems very convenient for our guys, not to have so many bodies to bury. But maybe it is also foreshadowing another disaster approaching. (The very nature of this book tells us another disaster is approaching. But what will be the catalyst?)
- War is coming, and Flagg has the advantage so far, with our heroes spending most of their time travelling and settling into their new city. Flagg has an arsenal of weapons, and, if Bateman is to be believed, most of the technical people. What on earth is Stephen King trying to say here? Computer nerds are evil, or technology is? Is he advocating an ending similar to the finale of the most recent version of Battlestar Galactica? It seems like a very harsh and simplistic judgement!
- I asked if there was any significance to the locations where people have congregated. Neither Judith nor I have been to America, so we can't go from personal experience, but Las Vegas has a rather garish reputation of debauchery (and I'm sure it's lovely in real life. Well...) Also, it's surrounded by desert, so there's nowhere to run.
- Abagail's farm in Nebraska seemed idyllic, all fertile and wholesome and old-fashioned. But it's not big enough for all the people flocking towards them, so they had to find a new place: Boulder, Colorado, a deserted city (as are they all, now, but this one has fewer corpses ruining the aesthetic.) But there does seem to be a sort of exiled-from-paradise theme here, too.
- The bit that made Judith the angriest in this section was Bateman's discussion of having to reinstate a political system in the free zone of Boulder. And, of course, it has to be the same old way of doing things as before: a hierarchy, a democracy, sure, but let's make sure that it's the sort of democracy that he and his people want. They'll have Mother Abagail as the nominal head, because she's the one the people have come to find, but really Bateman and his carefully-selected committee will be in charge. Stick to what is tried, tested, and not entirely broken, but for goodness' sake, don't try anything new.
- Although Judith liked Bateman upon first meeting him, now she can't stand him, finding him manipulative and sly.
- Politics, I think, is where the new utopian society will start to come apart.
- But what's the alternative? In Las Vegas, where Randall Flagg is setting up his own domain, it is a democracy, ruled by fear. And Flagg may have called all the dark hearts towards him, but he is ruthless in disposing of anyone who is not "useful" to him.
- So, as has already been mentioned, the characters have all been dreaming of Randall Flagg and Mother Abagail. Up to a point, fair enough. But their dreams are starting to shape too much of the plot. They're going to places because of dreams. They're getting valuable information from their dreams. And it's starting to nag at me that this feels like cheating. Sure, if everyone's having the same dreams, they'd say "hmm, that's weird," and "maybe there's something going on here," but it's bothering me how much trust they're putting in them, and it feels like lazy storytelling to me.
- When Larry arrived at the free zone, he revealed that he'd been following a trail set by Harold Lauder. He had a far higher opinion of Harold than either Frannie or Judith and I did. It set me to wondering who had the more accurate impression of the guy. Larry judged him only by his actions, unprejudiced by Harold's age, personality or appearance. Is he ignorant or wise?
- We discussed last week that Harold felt like a dangerously unhinged "protector" of Frannie. When he described Stu as "that guy," with all his preconceived ideas of the stereotype jock figure, I was thinking, no, Harold is the "that guy" of today's world, the self-described "nice guy" who makes a martyr of himself, whining about being "friendzoned" whenever a girl doesn't fancy him, and feeling all hard-done-by and entitled to another person's affections. Not a nice guy at all.
- As such, he seemed far too cheerful about Frannie and Stu becoming an item. He took it too well, and, after Fran's reflections after discussing Harold with Larry, you could almost wonder if, after all, Harold was more mature than we'd given him credit for. Then you remember he's spied on them together, stolen Frannie's diary, and generally acted much younger than his age, and it's all thrown into doubt. In the last couple of pages of chapter 50, we see Harold's perspective, and no, it is all an act.
- I never had a high opinion of Harold, but I was still shocked to see him plotting to actually go to Flagg and betray his fellow-survivors. All because he didn't get the girl. It seems that everyone who goes bad, ends up with Flagg. There's no grey areas. I'm not sure whether I like that or not. I suppose Harold's story shows the mundane sort of evil born of jealousy or selfishness or so on. Not all of the bad guys are the murderers and robbers and rapists. Some start off quite ordinary folk, with a weakness, and where there's a weakness, there's a vulnerability to the dark side.
So, what's to come? Now we've got all our main good guys together in Boulder, they've got to start building a community once more. There's a meeting been called to discuss leadership, politics and a legal system. Judith is concerned that no one's mentioned farming yet. Canned foods won't last forever, and people need fresh vegetables. They need doctors, surgeons - even appendicitis has proven fatal, now. Frannie'll need a midwife. Meanwhile, we know trouble is coming. War is coming, and they are unprepared. But before Flagg launches his assault on Boulder, in whatever form that will take, I think it will start corroding from within. ("Things fall apart; the centre does not hold.) Nadine is dangerous. Harold is dangerous. Larry is a risk. I think good will prevail, ultimately, but at a great cost, and Randall Flagg will not be utterly destroyed. I rather suspect that there will be yet another great collapse, and that the book will end with the last survivors having to start afresh yet again. Perhaps back at Mother Abagail's farm in Nebraska - but she will not be there. She's a hundred and eight. She will not survive the book.