Apocalypses and ambiguities


Earlier I was reading the Onion’s quasi-review of Stephen King’s The Stand, and started thinking appropriately apocalyptic thoughts.  (The Onion’s review was very good, as just about everything is on their A.V. Club site.  I think if I could only ever read one pop-culture review site — film, music, books — I’d pick theirs.  There’s just something very unpretentious and even un-ironic about their reviews, which is a little amazing considering what the Onion itself is know for.)

One thing the reviewer singled out for criticism was the absence of ambiguity from the latter part of the book, something I remember as well.   The characters, early on, seem to be just as confused and almost-unhinged as the collapsing Captain Trips-shaped world.  I remember Larry’s ambivalence about his stardom, Harold’s general adolescent misery, and even Nick’s troubles with self-acceptance.  I knew that the characters would have their own story arcs and that King was basically setting them up to have each one of them take a stand and come through (or not) based on their strength of character.  And that was fine, and maybe necessary (although there’s something to be said for characters who just refuse to change, too, if only because it subverts expectations).

What I resisted in The Stand wasn’t quite the lack of ambiguity.  That was a part of it, maybe, even if I wouldn’t have thought of it that way as a teenager in the 1980s.  Mostly I resisted the moral passivity of the characters.  They all basically acknowledged a very simplistic good-vs.-evil framework in which they themselves were mostly pawns on the “good” side.  And I didn’t like that.  Self-sacrifice was okay if it was for some profoundly personal reason, but not when it’s for some mystical cause.  It just seemed too easy, a way for King to turn a genuinely interesting and difficult idea — the way that people will naturally gravitate toward charismatic figures in the absence of order — into a simple morality play.

Still, I liked The Stand because I liked the characters, something that the Onion reviewer points out as well.  Nick stood out for me because he was an isolate among other isolates, and I guess that resonated for me.  I wasn’t much of a joiner, and I was probably a little too distrustful of those who were.  (Probably the same reason I loved Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.)

One thing I remember about The Stand was that there was very little portrayal of the everyday people who fell in with Randall Flagg.  There were a few exceptions, but they tended to be oddballs and psychotics.  The idea seemed to be that these people were susceptible to Flagg’s influence because of some moral weakness, while the main characters’ relative moral strength led them to the old woman in Nebraska.   There were exceptions like Harold, but he was (a little too obviously) the Judas in the story, necessary to bring about the seemingly preordained conclusion.

But what if the two camps weren’t so evenly and cleanly divided?  What if the only thing that really tied them together was their belief in the rightness of their cause?

Well, then that would make them very much like millions of other people who link themselves to a polarizing cause.  And it makes me think how much more interesting King’s book would have been, for example, if — when Larry and the others made their way to Flagg’s camp — they discovered just normal people like themselves.  If the missionaries had suddenly become aware of their own provincialism.

This has a Swiftian sound to it.  Maybe I just like stories that progress from the simple to the complex (instead of the other way around).  But there must be a story there, an end-of-the-world story that falsely pits one side against another.  And it would only be really effective if the reader were pulled in, I think, to at least subconsciously accept the story’s implicit division between good and evil.

Or maybe I just always like stories (and movies, too) that begin as one kind of thing and then become, or try to become, something else.   As if the characters are breaking free of the limits imposed on them by being fictional.   (Hamlet tried.  Had to kill a lot of people to get out of his revenge drama, but he did it.)

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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