Friday, November 02, 2018

The Good, The Bad, And The Do Nothings

So I'm rereading THE STAND again. Random observations: I tried to read the original edition I have, the one before the bloating, that's set in 1980, where Harold eats Payday candy bars. But while I dislike the the uncut edition for a lot of reasons, still, there are a lot of places in it that, now that I know they're there, I want to re read when I re read THE STAND. (Sadly, there are a lot of other places that I think are stinkerinos, like Fran's initial fight over her pregnancy with her psycho mother who is just going to die is one of these, most of the additional entries from Fran's journal, especially where King is trying to have her note 'new things' for the 1990 that the uncut version was set in, none of which happened -- like 'digs' becoming the new phrase for where you live, and people saying "I dig your digs" a lot. No, that would be 'crib', Steve). Anyway, so I'm rereading the uncut STAND now (as with the last George R.R. Martin book, this thing is a monster that is actually uncomfortable to hold in your hands without support when you're trying to read it). And as always happens when I reread THE STAND, I'm noticing shit I never picked up on before. My last big revelation is that the characters in THE STAND really have no agency. They do nothing of importance. They do not defeat the Dark Man. God defeats the Dark Man, or the Dark Man's own blinding incompetence in selecting a drooling, brain damaged sociopath with anger management issues as his chief weapons procurer defeats him. But Stu, Glen, Ralph, Franny, Larry, the Judge... all those guys are just background color, there to make the story interesting. They do, too... King was at the top of his game as far as characterization goes when he wrote this. But they accomplish NOTHING in this book. But I realized this the last time I reread this thing, which was maybe five years ago. This time, I realized that not only do the 'heroes' accomplish little or nothing in this huge bloated volume... but neither does the villain. And I also realized that both the iconic Evil Guy, Randall Flagg, and the iconic Good Guy, Abigail Freemantle... are really not all that evil and good at all. (Of course, we all know that Mother Abby is yet another in a long line of magical Negroes in pop culture fiction, especially that by Stephen King. But that's not what I'm talking about here.) Let's look at Flagg first. King does a great job surrounding the Walkin' Dude with a dark and menacing aura. I mean, he SEEMS like a bad ass. Everything King tells us about this guy is wicked and awful -- he rides with radical black revolutionaries to kill cops, he rides with the KKK to lynch and rape blacks, he brainstormed with the SLA about kidnapping Patty Hearst and suggested they make her nuts instead of ransom her, he does all this nasty bad shit. King's poetry is on point here when he describes - "He hammered along, arms swinging by his sides. He was known, well known, along the highways in hiding that are traveled by the poor and the mad, by the professional revolutionaries and by those who have been taught to hate so well that their hate shows on their faces like harelips and they are unwanted except by others like them, who welcome them to cheap rooms with slogans and posters on the walls, to basements where lengths of sawed-off pipe are held in padded vises while they are stuffed with high explosives, to back rooms where lunatic plans are laid: to kill a Cabinet member, to kidnap the child of a visiting dignitary, or to break into a boardroom meeting of Standard Oil with grenades and machine guns and murder in the name of the people. He was known there, and even the maddest of them could only gaze upon his dark and grinning face at an oblique angle. The women he took to bed with him, even if they reduced intercourse to something as casual as getting a snack from the refrigerator, accepted him with a stiffening of the body, a turning away of countenance. They took him the way they might take a ram with golden eyes or a black dog-and when it was done they were cold, so cold, it seemed impossible they could ever be warm again. When he walked into a meeting the hysterical babble ceased-the backbiting, recriminations, accusations, the ideological rhetoric. For a moment there would be dead silence and they would start to turn to him and then turn away, as if he had come to them with some old and terrible engine of destruction cradled in his arms, something a thousand times worse than the plastic explosive made in the basement labs of renegade chemistry students or the black market arms obtained from some greedy army post supply sergeant. It seemed that he had come to them with a device gone rusty with blood and packed for centuries in the Cosmoline of screams but now ready again, carried to their meeting like some infernal gift, a birthday cake with nitroglycerine candles. And when the talk began again it would be rational and disciplined-as rational and disciplined as madmen can make it and things would be agreed upon. " And yet, for all this build up, for all the palpable atmosphere of supernatural malevolence that King paints around Flagg every time the guy appears... what the hell does he ever actually do in the book? He magically opens a locked cell door with a key when that cell door doesn't open with a key. He levitates. He sends out this big red Mordor eye to spy on people (but it can't see Tom Cullen). He communicates with Harold and Nadine through a Ouija board. He smothers Kit Bradenton with his ass, and eats Bobby Terry alive. And, yes, I mean, these are bad things, and some of them are certainly supernatural -- he can, apparently, shapeshift, although King is coy about that. But, still. The society he sets up in Vegas isn't evil, just, kinda, vaguely cold and soulless. He isn't sending all the women to be raped over and over again in slave brothels that service his upper level managers. He isn't harvesting his weaker workers as food and using their skins for leather. He isn't working people to death, enslaving people, any of that good shit. All of that would be genuinely evil, totally dark. No. He's set up a tyranny, run by him, that works mostly because people are terrified of him. Yeah, that's not exactly a utopia. But there's law and order and the power works and people are safe in the streets. From the descriptions, Flagg's Vegas seems like a slightly better place to live than Soviet Russia. And he's kind of clueless. He has no idea who he is, where he came from, where his powers come from, what the fuck he's doing. He's clearly a vicious, cruel person (if he is a person) who doesn't give a shit about anyone else and who actively enjoys other people's pain, and yeah, that' s pretty bad... but it's all stuff we are told. We hardly ever see him DOING anything.

The phrase 'all hat, no cattle' could almost have been invented for ol' Randall Flagg. Now let's move on to Mother Abigail. This 'shufflin' old woman' gets the same treatment as Flagg, only in reverse. We are told over and over again that she radiates an aura of goodness and niceness, that she seems warm and sweet and kind and generous and loving. We're told this. But what does King show us? Well, she can cook. That's nice. And in the uncut STAND, we find out that she 'loves being sexy with her man'. She strongly disapproves of birth control - between Mother Abigail and Franny's dad, in fact, there's a strong right to life undercurrent all through the Uncut version that isn't as noticeable in the original published version. (As with nearly all King's books, there also seems to be a subtle but definite sense of disapproval of kinky sex -- and anything beyond full on fucking with full on pregnancy risk seems to be kinky, in King's mind. Harold and Nadine's relationship clearly makes this point, but Larry getting 'gobbled' by the oral hygienist early on goes pretty badly for both of them, too. The scenes where Mother Abigail muses about her sex life in the uncut edition seem to pretty strongly indicate that she not only has never had a dick anywhere near her mouth in her life, but that she'd denounce any such suggestion as the rankest blasphemy. And there are NO non heterosexuals in THE STAND; the supeflu, sent down as a judgement from God, took off ALL those nasty queers, apparently... except for Dana, who is apparently 'bi now'. But don't worry about that, because the Dark Man is gonna sort her shit out, just like he sorted out faggy old Kit the homosexual poet and underground facilitator who was dying of the superflu anyway. Oh, yeah, and in both editions, the Trashcan Man gets involved in some homo shit with a fellow devotee of the Dark Man. In the original published edition, it's a skeevy old dude who gives Trashy a ride and who comes into his hotel room one night and fondles his junk. You just know that guy would be wearing a MAGA hat these days. He dies of a heart attack a little later on, because that's what fags get in a Stephen King book. In the Uncut edition, of course, Trash meets the crazy Kid, a character King seems absurdly proud of. The Kid sticks a gun barrel up Trashie's ass while forcing Trash to jack him off, and later on, he gets et by wolves. Again, guys getting with guys? Nuh uh. Don't do it in a King book. You'll either get ass smothered or wolf et.) But back to Mother Abigail, God's chosen avatar of all that is good and right and Christian and decent and proper on the post-judgement Earth, the 108 year old magical Negro who radiates the aura of 'goodness' and 'niceness' and 'kindness'. What does King actually SHOW us about ol' Abby, instead of telling us? Well. She thinks Democrats are stupid, especially the ones from New York State. And although pretty much the entire human race is dead, including all of her kin, the only thing that moves her to tears is... guess what? Thinking about how the government took a 'little whack here, a little whack there' of her family's property for back taxes, over the years. Yep. She just busts out bawlin' when she's telling Nick about that. She tells him about how she would go out every year and look at the piece of land that was no longer hers and just sob like a little girl, with tears running down her cheeks. (This, by the way, is nonsense. Mother Abigail has like a million grandkids, and some of them are doing very well financially, and devoted to her. They'd pay the fucking taxes on the property, not least of which because, property is always a good investment. Just leasing that property to some agribusiness that wanted to grow corn on it would pay those taxes.) Well, there is one other thing she cries about -- having to leave that property and go die in Colorado. But she'll do it, because mean ol' God says she has to. She's also a dynamo at shaking an old bag at a bunch of weasels and saying "This is MY chicken! Take a hike, you bozos!" So, what are we left with here, as far as what King has actually demonstrated about the character through actual actions and behavior, not just told us? She likes to cook, play guitar, sing, and have sex with her husband as long as it's just straight up fucking with no contraception. She's contemptuous of those with differing political beliefs, she bitterly resents taxes, and she loves private property. Goddam, I think she might be wearing a MAGA hat, too. Or at the very least has her own show on the Food Network. Every time I reread THE STAND, I come away admiring the book more and more for all the rules it manages to break and still be a very readable, thrilling, compelling story. Heroes that do nothing. Good guys who aren't very good, bad guys who aren't really all that bad. A huge sprawling narrative about the end of the world as we know it, in which basically, the only important actors are God and the Devil. It's a pretty astonishing thing, when you look at it... especially when you consider that this is one of the most successful novels ever published. But Lordy, Lordy, there's some crazy shit in there.