Wednesday, 27 April 2016
While looking through a box of old books from my childhood, I found a dystopian YA novel written long before dystopian YA Novels were A Thing. I read Z for Zachariah in year 8 for English, the year when we really started learning about Literature in earnest. My teacher was Mrs Leppard, and she split the class up into small groups to read and discuss one of a selection of science fiction and speculative fiction. Animal Farm, was one of the others on offer. I remember sitting with three other kids in the cloakroom or the library - (Jo Holt, Sam Irving and one other - possibly Mark Harrison) feeling, even then, that this was what it was to be a student.
Written in the 1970s, Z for Zachariah is set after a nuclear war wipes out masses of the population - perhaps most of the world, perhaps just a region. It is written as the diary of a teenage girl, Ann, whose family farm in a valley has escaped contamination. Her family ventured out of the valley to investigate, and were never seen again. With only the company of her dog, Faro, and the cows and chickens, Ann survives by farming and with resources from the nearby store. Then, one day, a stranger comes to the valley, dressed in a radiation suit. Although Ann is wary of the newcomer at first, she comes to his aid when he becomes sick from swimming in a contaminated stream, and they strike up a tentative friendship. But can he really be trusted?
I had very vivid memories of the first half of Z for Zachariah from reading it at thirteen; we spent several lessons reading the novel slowly, and discussing it, and I still, seventeen years on, could picture Ann's valley, her day-to-day life living without electricity in one green place surrounded by dead land. I recalled the arrival of John Loomis, her wariness of him, his sickness and Ann nursing him back to health. But I think we didn't have enough lessons - or perhaps we got sidetracked in our small groups - to read the entire novel, and the ending was more vague. I probably didn't understand all of what was being implied, or why Loomis went from being an ally to a threat one night. And I remember hurrying through the last chapters on the last day of term, so that I could hand my school book back to my teacher. (I since bought a copy in a charity shop or used bookstore, but hadn't reread it until yesterday.) But it lingered with me. There is a real sense of claustrophobia, when Ann is hiding in the valley. She can't leave, because there is only one radiation suit and Loomis guards it jealously. He gradually proves to be a complex and chilling character, a dangerous control freak, and Ann is trapped with him with no one else for miles around - or further - or anywhere.
Even now, in a bookish landscape full of apocalypses and dystopias, Z For Zachariah stands apart from the rest. It is effective in its simplicity: no totalitarian governments to bring down, no factions, hunger games or political intrigue, just two people in one little corner of the world, trying to survive.
Tuesday, 19 April 2016
After spending over a month reading The Stand and not a lot else, I finally finished it at the weekend. It's been a wild ride. Fictional superflu. Actual flu. 2-person book club meetins at home, in the pub, in Costa and on the beach. My poor book is rather ragged-looking after just one read, and it's going to be a relief not having to carry that massive tome around with me everywhere. It's been the rare occasion when I've almost - almost - wished for an e-reader instead.
Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.
- By the end of Book 2, it still felt as though there was an awful lot of plot to go; the narrative was racing towards a conclusion before it felt ready - despite having already invested over a thousand pages in the book. How on earth was Stephen King going to tie up all the loose ends in the last 300? (That's almost the length of an ordinary paperback novel, and yet it seemed pitifully small.)
- Well, one means he used was to simply cut off entire threads of story. The first few chapters see one character after another come to a sudden and brutal end, some before their stories really felt like they were beginning. Of the three spies sent to Randall Flagg's Las Vegas, two are dead within two chapters. Harold's story, too, is cut off suddenly; we are suddenly at the miserable end of his life, and see how he got there only in flashback. And Nadine. After years of grooming from Flagg to become his wife and the mother of monsters, one outburst and all his plans are thrown out of the window - literally!
- Narratively, this should be most unsatisfying. It breaks all the rules of storytelling. And yet, somehow it works. The sudden demises of Dayna and the Judge in the first chapters show how dangerous and terrifying an enemy Flagg is, how our heroes are ostensibly powerless against him, that he can thwart their schemes so quickly, and yet... he is not in control either.
- One reason I was disappointed in Needful Things, one of King's other novels, was because it ended up in a bloodbath. Most of the characters ended up dead, and I stopped caring after a while. The Stand has a similar body count among the named cast, and yet it worked. The stakes were higher.
- I could have kicked myself when he men from Boulder simply walked into Las Vegas and I finally realised what kind of story this was. How were four unarmed man going to do battle with Randall Flagg and his forces and live to tell the tale? They weren't meant to. That wasn't the plan. They were the sacrifice. And in retrospect it seemed obvious. The book is so full of Christian allegory - King even describes it as such in his introduction! Still, I shouted out in horror when I realised what Flagg had in store for the characters.
- So why, if they just had to show up and die, did they have to walk instead of drive? If they'd taken a car, how much suffering might have been prevented? But the walk was important; a test of character and faith. And, as Judith pointed out, it was about timing. They arrived, Flagg's gathered everyone together to make a spectacle of them, and the Trashcan Man shows up with his nuclear bomb. And so the plot strands all come together. Brutal.
- Looking back over Mother Abagail's prophecy, I realised she didn't say that one character would die, she said that one would not reach the destination - and that was Stu. He falls in the desert and breaks his leg, and as his broken-hearted friends leave him behind, we learn that "they never saw Stu again." That was when I started to put the pieces together - because I was sure that Stu would survive, against all the odds. With the help of the dog, Kojak, and Tom Cullen, the surviving spy on his way home, Stu pulls through the impossible and heads back east towards Boulder.
- I actually found Stu's journey home the most suspenseful part of the entire book. We think the danger is over - and then he starts having nightmares about Frannie's baby, opening up new fears. No, no, it has to be all right! There aren't enough pages left to do the alternative justice. Small spoilers remind us that we haven't actually seen anything that's going on in Boulder since they left.
- And then he arrives home to the worst news. The baby is alive - but it's got Captain Trips, the superflu that no one has ever survived. It's only a matter of time. But no. It can't die. Not this close to the end. Not after 1200 pages or so of waiting. And so I dared to hope that this child would have some sort of mutation that would allow it to throw off the disease - and when this turned out to be true I shouted "YES!" and punched the air.
- Although, ultimately, there was no battle in the end (and how many epic fantasies don't have a battle? It's just taken for granted these days. Nice to mix up the expectations there!) the only survivors of the main cast are Frannie, Stu, and Tom Cullen. Apart from Harold's bomb, the Free Zone has been largely safe, though, most of the casualties happened in Vegas or on the way. The community is growing. Yet, even so, my prediction about starting again once more proved correct, if not in the way I expected. Because, despite the increasing growth of the Boulder community, people are moving away again. The system begins to show the same flaws and problems as in the previous America. The Free Zone is now full of anonymous strangers, and with anonymity comes loss of community. So Stu and Frannie, with their baby (and another on the way) decide to move away, start again, US history unwinding again. They're going back to the pioneer life, away from everyone, out into the unknown. Very Little House on the Prairie. I was even right about the book ending on Mother Abagail's farm with Stu, Frannie and the baby. Although I wasn't expecting the new society to be that small!
- Almost ending, I should say. The epilogue leaves us with a final glimpse of Randall Flagg, still out there, somewhere. And as I'm aware that there is some crossover with the Dark Tower series, of which I've only read the first two books, I'm wondering if that world is where he's ended up.
Ultimately, I found the ending a lot more satisfying than I'd expected to, based upon where book two left off. I've seen several people criticising the book for having a rushed ending, but I think there were good reasons for some storylines coming to a very sudden halt. Yes, The Stand has earned its place at the "good" end of King's work, and was definitely worth the time and emotional commitment invested into it.
Monday, 18 April 2016
This update is rather belated as I spent a week somewhat appropriately struck down with the flu. I never get flu - I think this is the second time in thirty years, and so the timing of this was rather hilarious.* In the second half of Book 2 of The Stand, all our good guys have come together and settled down in Boulder, Colorado, and are working together to form a new society, known as The Free Zone. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the evil Randall Flagg has got his own community.
Spoilers aplenty! Read on at your own risk!
Life in the Free Zone
Nadine, Harold - and Larry
Spoilers aplenty! Read on at your own risk!
Life in the Free Zone
- Judith got very annoyed that even after the world's been turned upside-down, there seems to be the old expectations of gender roles: the women (ie Frannie) do the housework, while the men go out and do manual labour. Of course, we only really see the domestic arrangements of a few families. But Stu seemed surprised at first to see Frannie washing and mending when there are stores full of clothes for the taking. But that's no way to live - chuck out clothes instead of washing them. Still, Stu is a Good Egg and promises to take turns hand-washing the laundry (at least until the power's back on and "Frannie" can use a washing machine again.
- And anyway, what are they doing with all the rubbish, all the empty food cans and waste? I didn't see any mention of bin men. Is the water still on? Do they have a plumber? These are the details we want to know!
- Judith's grumbles of last week were that the Free Zone residents appeared to be recreating the same old way of life as they were familiar with from the old America. But money is useless now. Ownership doesn't seem to matter. If what you need is available, it's there for the taking - if it isn't, improvise.
- Of course, these resources won't last forever. For now, the Free Zone residents just want to survive the winter.
- There are a lot of committee meetings in this part of the book! And sure enough, most of the named protagonists are on the committee - it does seem a little bit cliquey, and we didn't much like Glen Bateman's conversation with Stu in the previous section, which seems to be all about how to ensure that their in-crowd get nominated.
- One of their tasks is to organise a team of spies to go over to Las Vegas against Flagg, and I didn't feel at all comfortable with the way that this group of seven took responsibility for picking out their "volunteers" in their absence, in full knowledge of their probable fates. For two of the spies, at least - the Judge and Dayna - they would at least get to make an informed decision, even if they can't very well feel able to decline. But the third was the mentally challenged Tom Cullen, and that just doesn't sit right with me. But, although Tom is "not playing with a full deck," it seems that he's got the rest of his cards stashed away in his subconscious, so if you hypnotise him, he's able to understand and consent to being sent off on his own into mortal danger, even if he doesn't remember it afterwards. No, this did not sit well with me at all.
Nadine, Harold - and Larry
- It's a very black-and-white world: there are the good guys and there are Flagg's people. Nadine and Larry are on the line - they could go either way. One decision shapes both of their fates: when Nadine tries to seduce Larry, but he's having none of it. It seems quite rare in fiction for a character to actually resist temptation! So, good for Larry. It's just a shame bad consequences came of him making the right decision...
- Yet, as Judith pointed out, Larry cannot be held responsible for Nadine's actions, and if it was the moment that marked Nadine's downfall, Larry's choice of loyalty to Lucy over lust was the moment that marked his redemption. If he'd gone with Nadine, would he have been able to save her - or would she have dragged him down with her? (I see parallels of abusive relationships where one person thinks they can change another.)
- Instead, Nadine turns to Harold, and this is where his nastiness, his martyr complex and his venomous hatred turn his loyalties over to Flagg once and for all. I was still shocked by what happened next...
- I was Most Displeased by the death of Nick Andros in Harold's explosion. Nick had been my favourite protagonist in the first book of The Stand. but once he arrived at Boulder he seemed to disappear somewhat. Sure, he sat on the committee, and his connection to Tom was a key plot point, but it felt rather as though King didn't know what to do with him, so got him blown up, instead! As Judith pointed out, his lack of a voice meant that he kind of got lost in the crowd once Boulder began filling up with people.
- Similarly, Mother Abagail, who was such a strong force for good, just vanished halfway through the book, returning to bring prophecies and then die. Her role seemed to be as a catalyst for plot events, rather than as an actual character.
Predictions for Book 3:
- That the focus will shift to the four remaining white (probably) male able-bodied members of the committee as they trek out to Las Vegas to confront Randall Flagg somehow.
- Somehow the four of them: Stu, Larry. Glen Bateman and Ralph (who we don't really know very well) have to take on Randall Flagg and his entire company. It seems like a doomed mission of foolishness, and I just don't know how they can hope to win in whatever battle is coming up. I'm sure they will defeat - if not destroy - Flagg, but King's got his work cut out to impress me with whatever deus ex machina he'll use to make this a battle and not a suicide mission.**
- Mother Abagail predicted that one member of the group will die. That seems to fit Larry's journey of character growth: redemption equals death.
- Judith reckons that the book might end with the beginning of the battle.
- I think that whatever happens, the population will suffer even more great losses, and will end up starting another new society from scratch, with a very small and simple community. Perhaps it will end, after all, in Mother Abagail's farm.
- I'm pretty sure Stu and Frannie will survive, and we've had so much invested in Frannie's baby that I really hope that it will live too. As a family, they'll be a symbol of hope for the future in a broken world. Also I feel like Tom Cullen has a charmed aura of Author Protection. Despite all the odds, he'll be okay.
Friday, 8 April 2016
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.
Sunday, 3 April 2016
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:
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 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 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.
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.