Well, it's been about two months since I wrote about a book I've read, and that's because for the past two months I've been reading all 1,153 pages of the complete and uncut edition of Stephen King's The Stand. And mostly not enjoying it.
I'm a Stephen King fan from way back, but I sometimes wonder if I've outgrown him the way I outgrew Piers Anthony. This is not necessarily the book the judge him by, I suppose, because it is one of his earliest, but it also is the one that many fans consider his masterpiece.
I don't see it.
First of all, what exactly is The Stand? After setting us up for a thousand pages for the ultimate battle of good vs. evil, madness comes strolling along in the form of The Trashcan Man with an atom bomb and destroys them both. Is that supposed to be the message we take away from the book?
And then there's Randall Flagg. Is he a man? Is he the devil? Is he something in between? Some primordial force of evil that exerts itself whenever the society of man grows too big for its own britches? I think he's the latter, but it's not like I'm going to get any clues from the old Walkin' Dude himself, because I don't think he knows, either. There are only a couple of pages in the novel where we get to spend time inside Flagg's head, and it probably would have been better if King had never given us those glimpses, because all we get is a jumbled mess. Sometimes he's a man (like when he's thinking about how to defeat his self-appointed enemies and worrying that he may not be strong enough to do it), sometimes he's a demon (like when he transforms while impregnating Nadine with his hellish seed), and sometimes he's the primordial force (like at the very end when he seems to coalesce back out of the nothingness to infiltrate another burgeoning human society).
And then there's this little exchange:
"I can't read the future, Fran," Glen said, and in the lamplight his face looked old and worn--the face, perhaps, of a failed magician. "I couldn't even properly see the effect Mother Abigail was having on the community until Stu pointed it out to me that night on Flagstaff Mountain. But I do know this: We're all in this town because of two events. The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn't matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they're all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn't been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame it on 'technology,' but 'technology' is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: 'Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.' It's a deathtrip. It always has been. So you can charge the superflu off to rationalism if you want. But the other reason we're here is the dreams, and the dreams are irrational. We've agreed not to talk about that simple fact while we're in committee, but we're not in committee now. So I'll say what we all know is true: We're here under the fiat of powers we don't understand. For me, that means we may be beginning to accept--only subconsciously now, and with plenty of slips backward due to culture lag--a different definition of existence. The idea that we can never understand anything about the state of being. And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a lifetrip...at lease until it proves otherwise."
Speaking very slowly, Stu said: "Well, I got my superstitions. I been laughed at for it, but I got em. I know it don't make any difference if a guy lights two cigarettes on a match or three, but two don't make me nervous and three does. I don't walk under ladders and I never care to see a black cat cross my path. But to live with no science...worshipping the sun, maybe...thinking monsters are rolling bowling balls across the sjy when it thunders...I can't say any of that turns me on very much, baldy. Why, it seems like a kind of slavery to me."
"But suppose those things were true?" Glen said quietly.
"Assume that the age of rationalism has passed. I myself am almost positive that it has. It's come and gone before, you know; it almost left us in the 1960s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, and it took a damn near permanent vacation during the Middle Ages. And suppose...suppose that when rationalism does go, it's as if a bright dazzle has gone for a while and we could see..." He trailed off, his eyes looking inward.
"See what?" Fran asked.
He raised his eyes to hers; they were gray and strange, seeming to glow with their own inner light.
"Dark magic," he said softly. "A universe of marvels where water flows uphill and trolls live the deepest woods and dragons live under the mountains. Bright wonders, white power. 'Lazarus, come forth.' Water into wine. And...just maybe..the casting out of devils."
He paused, then smiled.
"And the dark man?" Fran asked quietly.
Glen shrugged. "Mother Abigail calls him the Devil's Imp. Maybe he's just the last magician of rational thought, gathering the tools of technology against us. And maybe there's something more, something much darker. I only know that he is, and I no longer think that sociology or psychology or any other ology will put an end to him. I think only white magic will do that...and our white magician is out there someplace, wandering and alone." Glen's voice nearly broke, and he looked down quickly.
I know King is in the business of weaving tales about magic--about trolls that live in the deepest woods--but I think he turned this one on its head. There are other hints throughout the novel that Flagg and his followers represent the forces of science and technology, and that Mother Abigail and her followers are the magical druids at one with their spiritual environment. But neither metaphor actually works. Both camps use rationality and irrationality in equal measure, and their ultimate confrontation is a vindication of neither way of thinking. It might've been a better book if King had actually chosen sides.