Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The shadow of death runs throughout the pages of Stephen King’s enormous work, and there’s plenty of evil of which to be afraid. The story begins with a plague that’s sweeping the United States like wildfire, killing almost everyone who comes in contact with it. The virus was spawned in an army base, which proceeded to lockdown all exits. But one frantic man and his family managed to get out- bringing the virus with them.
In a very short time, the entire country is decimated. Cities are choked with dead bodies. Freeways are filled with the cars of those who tried to escape- and then died of the plague in the gridlock. Anarchy does take a hold, with frantic shootings and looting taking place as the government tries to shut down panic with increasingly martial means. But even that doesn’t last very long as the plague takes its toll.
There are survivors. And as they struggle to make their way through the ravaged landscape of what’s left of America, it becomes apparent that they are going to split into two different camps. All the survivors are having dreams which feature an old woman known as Mother Abigail and a dark man with a shadowed face. Whoever features most prominently in the dreams is an indicator of whose side the person dreaming will eventually take. And it’s during these bouts with these unnatural dreams that the various characters introduced begin to grow and take shape. Their response to the world going mad around them can be measured in large part by their reaction to the dreams.
I think probably the strongest point of this novel was the characters, though the setting is really terrifying in how well it’s written, and is a major reason the novel works. But the characters were so interesting in and of themselves that I just wanted to know more about them. None of them felt like caricatures. Nick Andros, the deaf and dumb mute, was probably my favorite example of this. He can’t talk, so he writes. He can’t hear, so he learned to read lips. He takes Tom Cullen (who incidentally is another disabled person who was very well depicted) with him despite the danger it puts him in. He was probably one of my favorite characters because of how his personality shone through in both his actions in story and the way he sees the world around him. The fact that he is so determined to learn what’s taking place around him tells so much about him as a person that goes unsaid in the wake of the flu. Similar characterization is given to most of the major viewpoint characters, and it did a good job of making me care about their fates despite the fact that there were so many characters to keep track of.
What I found fascinating was the extent to which characters were capable of screwing things up in this world. People in The Stand make poor judgments time and time again, and some learn from it and some do not. Larry Underwood’s complete mis-evaluation of Harold Lauder, Nadine Cross’s complete failure to recognize her own agency until the last moment, and Frances Goldsmith’s determined blindness to what was going on around her were all both very realistic and very frustrating. I kept wanting to shake the characters on occasion, but could recognize why they were taking the actions they did in the story.
I don’t know whether or not this was what King intended to examine, but I loved the extent to which society was put under a microscope for this tale. Here society was boiled down to the utmost basic component: human beings interacting with one another. Their outlook was obviously shaped by the tragedy, but as they went on to try and re-form a life for themselves, it was fascinating to see what they regarded as essential for a new society to form fairly. It’s a Free Zone committee and I couldn’t help but wonder what that said about the way Americans believe about society should function when this is what they perceive as key to living after the disaster. As time goes on they realize that this isn’t going to be enough to keep their society functioning and that they have to look elsewhere for the main reason they’ve all been gathered in Colorado through dreaming of an old woman calling them.
The main reason lies in a man named Randall Flagg, about whom little is known other than that he is evil. This sounds like a cheap characterization, but this person- or entity, as it were- honestly terrified me. He seemed like an unholy combination of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, with a very strong addition of vice and charisma. It’s never very clear what he is; we know the effects of what his powers are, and frankly that’s more than enough. The fact that I felt sorry for the mook who shot the Judge (one of the coolest minor characters and whose death really made me hate Flagg) is testimony to how disturbing Flagg was throughout the story. It’s really hard for a writer to make a villain who’s completely evil without any redeeming qualities effective, but the dark man was more than enough evidence that it’s possible to do just that.
There were a few very minor flaws in this story- I felt like some of the characters faded out disappointingly (Frances Goldsmith being the most egregious example) and some of the minor characters could have been more fully developed. I’d also like to have spent more time with those ordinary people living in Flagg’s encampment, though it’s entirely possible that would have made an already huge tome too long to bear. But overall The Stand was a very satisfying read, with a great setting and characters- and one that I’ll enjoy revisiting in future.