Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Stand" by Stephen King

I have a love-hate thing going on with King. I think he is a great writer, and his writing is about more than just scaring the reader. He thinks. However, he goes beyond merely exposing and questioning disturbing aspects of life and culture; he tends to end all of his thoughts on an even more disturbing note than the bad things he is observing and highlighting.

When I was in college, my roommate claimed that “The Stand” was his favorite novel—not just amongst King’s works—period. At the time I had already read (and been disturbed by) “Pet Sematary” and “Salem’s Lot” and I was reading “It.” That one was even more unsettling. I put “The Stand” off… for over 20 years.

Now, having gotten around to it, I have to admit it is pretty brilliant. Most lists you find around the web even today rank it as his best work. I don’t know if I would go that far myself. I still think “It” is exploring more interesting and important concepts. But “The Stand” is an unforgiving critique of civilization, culture, and the evil that the masses perpetuate.

The first third of the novel is particularly disturbing in today’s climate. The quick collapse of human culture due to an incurable pandemic is all too imaginable. And, it also exposes just how fragile our civilization really is. We like to fool ourselves into thinking law and order are in our nature, but I think we periodically remind ourselves that this is not true. We are currently at the point in the cycle again where we are exploring stories that examine how fragile our structures are. (“The Walking Dead” “The Hunger Games” etc.)

It is the vast middle section of the book that really examines the themes that “The Stand” is most interested in examining. The way people act without norms. The alternative ways structure and civilization can be achieved: decency and democracy where ultimately anything goes and you hope people behave, and firm control and order where detrimental behavior is not tolerated, but where ultimately the evil of humanity will simply be empowered.

The last bit, the actual stand of the title, is where things fall apart. (Isn’t that always the case in King’s stuff?) However, the last theme he explores is one that really resonates with me. It is an almost Charles-Williams-like worldview. Sacrifice is the only offering decent people have to offer in the fight between good and evil. The actual fighting, and winning, is up to God. Ours is to merely obey, sacrifice where requested, and trust.

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