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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Stephen King's The Stand

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

-      T.S. Eliot

It isn’t often that I begin a blog entry with some poetry, but there is a reason behind why I have done this.  This poem is related to the blog topic for today.

Today’s entry is the second entry about a book by author Stephen King (the first one was “Carrie”, which was a Monday Matinee a couple of weeks ago).  And what a book it ended up becoming.  On the surface, it appears to be a story set in a post-apocalyptic world following the release of a deadly virus.  But if one were to read the entire book from cover to cover (and at 823 pages in length, it’s definitely one of the largest novels that I have ever read, they would find a wonderfully written tale of survival, hope, and the ultimate battle between good and evil.

It’s also the book that I consider to be my favourite Stephen King novel.

That book is the 1978 novel “The Stand”.

When Stephen King sat down to write the draft of what would eventually become “The Stand”, his original idea was to write a novel about the Patty Hearst case, but for whatever reason couldn’t figure out a way to put the idea onto paper.  But right around that time, Stephen King was remembering a news story he had read about an accidental chemical and biological warfare spill in Utah.  From this news story, King was inspired to begin the writing process for “The Stand”, which King compared to writing “The Lord Of The Rings” in a modern American setting.

TRIVIA:  When “The Stand” was first published in 1978, the setting of the book was during the year 1980.  But in 1990, when a brand new version of “The Stand” was released as an uncut version, the time period changed from 1980 to 1990, and many pages were written to incorporate modern pop culture references.

All right, now that you know how the book came to be written, I think it’s time to get into the plot and the characters.  To supplement this blog, I’ll be posting clips from the miniseries based on the book that aired on ABC in May 1994.  I will state that some of the characters and plot points were edited out or changed from the book, and I will be pointing out these changes as we proceed on with the discussion of the book.  And, I’ll also state that there’s absolutely no way that I can talk about every character and plot device in the book, because if I even attempted to do that, this entry will be...well...823 pages.  So, I’ll just point out the most important points in the book, and maybe along the way we’ll learn a few life lessons.

The book begins at a hidden U.S. Army base where a group of scientists are busy working on a superflu virus that is referred to in the book as “Captain Trips” (though the official name given for the virus is “Project Blue”).  Unfortunately for everyone in the lab, the virus is accidentally released, and everybody working at the lab dies.  The people inside the lab desperately attempt to seal off the area before they succumb to the flu, but in the confusion and panic, a guard manages to escape the base with his family, not realizing that he is infected with “Captain Trips”.

By the time Charles Campion arrives in East Texas, his whole family has died from the disease, and he is nearly dead.  He ends up crashing his car near a gas station where the reader is first introduced to Stu Redman (who is played by Gary Sinise in the miniseries), who tries desperately to save his life.  But Campion passes away, and with his death begins a worldwide pandemic.  Three weeks later, less than one per cent of the global population is left alive.

Miraculously, Stu Redman survives, not even feeling any symptoms whatsoever.  However, his resistance to “Captain Trips” prompts the U.S. government to lock him inside a CDC where they hope to be able to find a cure for the superflu by studying him.  But after almost everyone at the CDC succumbs to the illness, leaving Stu all alone, he busts out of the facility (following a battle with one of the doctors of the facility who has been slowly driven to insanity due to the outbreak), and seeks out to find out what has happened.

The book does a fantastic job fleshing out character backgrounds while “Captain Trips” wreaks havoc on the world, and it is eventually revealed that Stu Redman isn’t the only American to survive the plague.  As more people die, we learn a lot about the last people left standing, and as I talk about some of the people that Stu happens to meet, I’ll list the person who played them in the miniseries.

There’s Frannie Goldsmith (Molly Ringwald), a young woman in her late teens who happens to be pregnant with her boyfriend’s child.  She lives in the tiny community of Ogunquit, Maine, where she and a neighbour, Harold Lauder (Corin Nemec) are the only two survivors.  You also meet Larry Underwood (Adam Storke), a pop singer from Los Angeles who happens to have the final number one hit ever on the Billboard Charts at the time of the plague with “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man”.

He happens to be in New York City at the time the plague strikes, which transforms the metropolis into a morgue.  It is here that he meets up with Nadine Cross (Laura San Giacomo), and the two of them team up to escape the city.

CHANGE ALERT #1:  Although the character of Nadine Cross exists in “The Stand”, her character is actually a combination of two people.  In the book, a character named Rita Blakemoor had accompanied Larry out of New York, but her character died of an overdose before Larry met Nadine.  So, for the miniseries, Rita Blakemoor’s characteristics were combined with Nadine’s.

Other survivors include Nick Andros (Rob Lowe), a deaf-mute man from the Midwest, who crosses paths with Tom Cullen (Bill Fagerbakke), a kind-hearted, mentally challenged man who insists that everything is spelled M-O-O-N.  That spells moon.  You also have retired professor Glen Bateman (Ray Walston), farmer Ralph Brentner (Peter van Norden), and Dayna Jurgens (Kellie Overbey) making up the group that eventually meets up in the city of Boulder, Colorado after passing through the state of Nebraska.

At the same time, another group of survivors meets up in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, and unlike the people in Boulder, these people have done some rather terrible, criminal activities before the collapse of civilization.  There’s Lloyd Henreid (Miguel Ferrer), a criminal who happens to be locked in a prison cell at the time of the outbreak, Julie Lawry (Shawnee Smith), an oversexed teenage girl, and a mentally ill scavenger who is given the nickname of “Trashcan Man” (Matt Frewer).

But why were the survivors headed towards Boulder and Las Vegas?  The explanation lies with the idea of two key figures.  Prior to the outbreak, the survivors often had dreams or visions of one of two people, and in the world after “Captain Trips”, the visions intensified.  If the person had images of an elderly black woman in a cornfield, they were lead to a farmhouse in Nebraska, where they would end up meeting the kindly, 108-year-old Mother Abagail Freemantle (Ruby Dee).  She encourages everyone who meets her that they need to develop a democratic society known as the “Free Zone” in Boulder, and she acts as a spiritual guide for the Boulder survivors.

TRIVIA:  In the mimiseries, Ruby Dee’s husband, Ossie Davis, played the role of Judge Richard Farris.

However, if a person kept seeing a demonic, evil man in their dreams, they ended up in Las Vegas, where they would be given an audience with Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan), a man with supernatural powers who rules with an iron fist.  He puts the Vegas survivors to work, restoring power and collecting as many weapons as they can to build a tyrannical, evil empire, providing a new meaning to the term “Sin City”.

For a while, everything goes well in Boulder, Colorado.  The people manage to form a real society, and everyone does their part to make life worth living again.  Frannie and Stu grow closer, and eventually fall in love, but Frannie is worried about her unborn child developing the superflu that killed most of the world’s population.  However, Frannie and Stu’s relationship makes Harold Lauder see red.  Harold had a crush on Frannie for many years, and he saw Stu as a threat.  After all, Harold was a nerdy sort who knew that he had no shot with Frannie, but after the end of the world, he thought there was a small chance.

CHANGE ALERT #2:  In the book, Harold Lauder was obese, with him losing weight as he made the journey from Maine to Colorado.  The miniseries just portrayed Harold Lauder as just a nerd. 

But there was a deeper meaning for Harold’s resentment.  He was growing tired of life in Boulder, and he began having visions of Randall Flagg, who told Harold to come to Las Vegas.  And Harold wasn’t the only one having visions of Flagg in the Boulder Free Zone.  Nadine Cross had been having visions of Flagg all along (hers were even more vivid than Harold’s, but I’ll let you read the book to discover why this is the case), and was on her way to Vegas before getting sidetracked with Larry Underwood in New York.  Nadine and Harold compared notes, and the two of them embarked on a scheme to infiltrate the Boulder Free Zone and depart for Las Vegas.

With help from Nadine, Harold decides to build a bomb and place it inside the building where the Free Zone committee held their meetings.  The two of them soon leave Boulder to flee to Las Vegas as the bomb detonates, killing Nick Andros as well as half of the Free Zone committee.

To complicate things even further, Mother Abagail’s health takes a turn for the worse and her time is slowly running out.  As both the Boulder and Las Vegas camps are now aware of each other, it becomes clear that only one side can win, and as Mother Abagail breathes her last breath, she informs the surviving members of the Free Zone committee that the final battle is near, and they must go to Las Vegas to have a final fight with Randall Flagg.  One last stand between good versus evil.  So Stu, Glen, Larry, and Ralph make the journey to Las Vegas alone while Frannie and the other Boulder residents stay behind, hoping for good news. 

As well, prior to the explosion, a few Boulder residents snuck into Las Vegas (including Tom Cullen), to spy on the enemy camp.  Unfortunately for most of them, Randall Flagg figures out their identities, and dispatches them before they have the chance to fight back.  The only person who seems to avoid capture is Tom Cullen, as all Flagg can see when trying to find out who the last spy’s identity was is a picture of the moon.  This proves to be an important plot point, as Tom Cullen ends up becoming an unsung hero of sorts towards the end of the book.

The journey to Las Vegas won’t be an easy one.  Early on, one of the men has an accident and breaks his leg, unable to continue.  The three remaining men trudge along to Las Vegas leaving him behind.  Will he end up being okay?  Nadine and Harold continue on to Vegas, but only one will make it there alive...and when they arrive, they soon discover that it probably would have been better if they had died after all.  And when you have the mentally ill Trashcan Man setting whole towns on fire and collecting dangerous weapons along the way, you know that it won’t end well for someone.  Sure enough, an object that the Trashcan Man brings to Las Vegas ends up making a lot of noise towards the end.

But, that’s all I can reveal.  I really think you should read the book to discover for yourselves how the end of the world really ends.

That’s about all that I have to say about “The Stand”.  Sure, the book doesn’t really have a happy vibe to it, as most everyone in the world ends up dead.  However, there are a lot of life lessons in the book.  It shows that no matter how dire the situation is (and believe me, the end of the world is about as dire as you can get), people can find a common ground and work together to survive anything.  Certainly, the people of Boulder did this, and well, to a lesser extent, the people in Las Vegas succeeded as well.

I think more importantly though, it was a great book to bring together groups of people who normally wouldn’t cross paths, and put them in a situation where they made great team players the more they got to know each other.  You normally wouldn’t expect much in common between a gas station attendant, a pop singer, a farmer, and a university professor, but yet those four people ended up forming part of the Boulder Free Zone committee.  And I think that we can take something from that.  We can be completely different from each other, and we can have different beliefs, backgrounds, classes, or races, and yet if we’re in a situation that means the difference between life and death, I would hope that we could work together to make a difference, rather than letting our differences tear us apart.  It worked for the people of Boulder, Colorado in “The Stand”, didn’t it?

One last thing...the poem I posted at the beginning?  It appeared in the opening scene of the miniseries.  But it’s not quite accurate when you consider that the world did end with a whimper...but there was a bang involved towards the end of the book.

And with that, we end our book study for this week with a question.

Whose side would you be on if you were one of the people who survived “Captain Trips”?  Boulder or Las Vegas?  Mother Abagail or Randall Flagg?

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