9.07.2012

King's Highway pt. 31: Flaggs of Our Fathers

I will stray from my Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve format for these "side trails," i.e. those Dark-Tower-related books that are not part of the main Dark Tower series. Or at least for this particular blog, as it doesn't fit as easily into the Overview / Trail Notes format. I tried to make it fit, but it grew too unwieldy. So! Onwards.

For many people The Stand is Stephen King's hallmark work.

Anyone else think of Spy vs. Spy for this?
And it's easy to understand why. He's had bestseller-success with everything published since, of course, but this is the one most often named as "best King book," a phenomenon upon which King has remarked, "There's something a little depressing about such a united opinion that you did your best work twenty years ago."

Me, personally, I think he's done stronger work since. But that's not to take anything away from its status as "King's best." It's certainly a hell of an accomplishment.

The book is dedicated to Tabitha King (ie his wife, if you live under a rock), with the inscription, "This dark chest full of wonders." Just what every wife wants: a tale of apocalyptic destruction!

Here's what King has to say about this one in Danse Macabre:

"(I read a news story) about an accidental CBW spill in Utah. All the bad nasty bugs got out of their canister and killed a bunch of sheep. But, the news article stated, if the wind had been blowing the other way, the good people of Salt Lake City might have gotten a very nasty surprise... We were living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time, and I used to listen to the Bible-thumping station which broadcast out of Arvada quite regularly. One day I heard a preacher dilating upon the text. 'Once in every generation a plague will fall among them.' ...And that was that. I spent the next two years writing an apparently endless book called The Stand. It got to the point where I began describing it to friends as my own little Vietnam."

and

"My own lesson in writing The Stand was that cutting the Gordian Knot simply destroys the riddle instead of solving it, and the book's last line is an admission that the riddle still remains."

Interesting. As The Stranger says at the end of Lebowski, " I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself. "

I'd love to talk to the book design folks at Signet about the choices they made with their King reprints. I enjoy most of them, and this one in particular is pretty cool. But it almost reminds me of a karaoke video at the same time.
I've read this many times over the years. It's an amazing book, undoubtedly, though my personal opinion is that it slacks a little in the last few hundred pages. A victim of its own realism, perhaps? The story takes its time for the first 800 pages or so, and that's a good thing. While it may not be very interesting (then again, it very well may be) to watch ordinary Joes put a society back together and all that entails, the no-stone-left-uncovered-ness of the plotting / pacing is at least consistent.

And then, wham, Vegas explodes because God appears to push down a nuclear detonator, and Tom Cullen's having those deux-es-machima dreams familiar to many of King's third acts. Now, don't get excited - it's still one hell of a great and gripping read, and far be it from me to snarkily-nitpick a story as enduring as this one. But this time around, the last few hundred pages seemed a little less satisfying to me than they had previously.

A brief aside:

I used to listen to this album a lot back in the day. The title track is inspired by The Stand. And, incidentally...
I always sing the title of this truly-remarkable book of short stories to the tune of "Among the Living," i.e. "Among the Missing! Stories by Dan Chaon!" instead of "Among the Living, follow me or die." Try it - you'll like it. (And, if you enjoy well-crafted short fiction, pick up a copy of this book; it is amazing.)
I've referred elsewhere to SK as the Charles Dickens of the twentieth century. And as I go along the Highway, here, I'm finding that to be more and more true. Not just in terms of contemporaneous popular-entertainment, but in novel-construction and population-of-characters. Perhaps. Someone smarter than me should explore this more thoroughly.

Will The Stand one day be considered the Tale of Two Cities of King's canon? i.e. the one schoolkids of the future will know/ read, but never the one covered in grad school seminars? I've got to say - the idea of college kids in the year 2090 reading King the way I read Dickens at Rhode Island College is fun to imagine. (As well as the King's-America tours that may exist. On this spot, Randall Flagg exploded... etc.)
Or is King the Chaucer of the modern day? Maybe that's a better comparison? They have a few things in common, most notably a) their plots both operate in a universe where "Godly" intervention is taken as something of a given, or, put a different way, if the idea of a higher power helping the characters along strikes you as insane, then the third acts of many of their stories will anger or irritate you. (King's interventions are definitely more subtle, but that's more the result of 700 years of narrative innovation; medieval morality plays didn't spend much time with "subverting convention," mainly because the conventions were still being drafted) and b) their dialogue and characterization rely on what Maude Lebowski (okay, so I've got Lebowski on the brain) calls "the parlance of (their respective) time."

I never felt more like an English major than that one semester I took both a Chaucer and Dickens seminar. Talk about knowledge for which I've had no subsequent use!
Does that make Bill Thompson (who "discovered" King and was his strongest early booster) John of Gaunt? A question for the ages...

Anyway, The Stand is populated with a small universe of memorable characters, but for our purposes here, (i.e. that which relates to the Dark Tower) we will concentrate only on one of them: Randall Flagg, aka The Walkin' Dude. More from Danse Macabre:

"...An Apollonian society is disrupted by a Dionysian force (in this case a deadly strain of superfly that kills almost everybody). Further, the survivors of this plague discover themselves in two camps: one, located in Boulder, Colorado, mimics the Apollonian society, just destroyed...; the other, located in LAs Vegas, Nevada, is violently Dionysian... But below all this, the face of the real werewolf can be dimly seen."

i.e. Flagg.
I wish I could add this background to pretty much every photo of mine. I suppose nothing's stopping me.
Flagg is King's signature villain. He appears in the Dark Tower right off the bat  as The Man in Black in The Gunslinger, but not explicitly until The Waste Lands (coming soon to the ol' King's Highway but beyond our scope today.)

He next appears in...


Written as a bedtime story/fairy tale for his daughter Naomi, Eyes is a fun read and has several parallels with Dark Tower stuff:

"A tale set in the medieval country of Delain (the name recalls Deschain) ruled by King Roland, who has two sons, Peter and Thomas; Peter is the heir to Roland's throne. The main antagonist is Flagg (The Man In Black, Randall Flagg, The Walkin' Dude, Marten Broadcloak, Walter O'Dim, The Dark Man, R.F. etc...) he is the king's evil advisor, he conspires to kill the king, frame Peter, overrule Thomas and ultimately cause anarchy in the kingdom. He imprisons the prince in a high tower called the "needle". When prince Peter escapes he confronts Flagg with his brother Thomas and other loyal friends. Thomas shoots Flagg with an arrow that his father killed a dragon with. Flagg dematerializes and flees. He is followed by Prince Thomas and his servant Dennis. This book has the "feel" of a story set in in-world, with similar speech, customs and mood."

Shades of Shawshank in that escape-from-the-tower bit.
Not much to say about this one. It's a fun read, to be sure. I remember buying this one (well, the Viking mass paperback, not the limited edition from Philtrum Press) new off the rack at Waldenbooks. If memory serves, I picked up this on the same visit:


(Not that that has anything to do with anything. If only Rebecca Howe's initials were R.F.!)

SyFy is allegedly putting together an Eyes of the Dragon TV event - makes sense. It's kind of surprising one hasn't been made already. Here's hoping Pixar or an animation company of similar quality makes one. (Tho I wouldn't mind a Rankin / Bass-style adaptation, myself.)

At the story's end, it's mentioned that Thomas and Dennis meet and do battle with Flagg again but that it's a tale for another day. I'd like to read that; maybe that day will arrive soon/ someday.

As for the TV adaptation of The Stand...

Jesus, I forgot Corin "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" Nemec played Harold. Great casting of Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd, though.
it starts off kind of strong and then whiffs as it goes along. What's to blame? Partially, it suffers greatly from trying to adapt R-rated material for a PG audience. Sometimes that works out just fine, but The Stand in particular suffers, I think, from being so "sanitized."

And the good and evil showdown comes across as Hallmark instead of HBO. Instead of adding to the "epic"ness, it dilutes it. It really doesn't change too much from the book, so maybe "dilute" is the wrong word, but it just has a totally different feel on screen, particularly in the scene where our heroes are marching along the road, singing Christian spirituals. Nothing wrong with that - and again, it appears in the novel the same way - but it just isn't as compelling on screen.

And nothing against the actor, but this depiction of Our Man Flagg is not to my liking. He doesn't even do a bad job, just... that haircut is ridiculous. The banality of evil and all, sure, but it's tough to access the "unspeakable evil" of a dude who looks like a Molly Hatchet roadie. Tho in all fairness, his appearance does match the description from the book; it's just one of those circumstances I feel they'd have been better served changing things up a bit. I suppose I should be thankful they didn't turn him into Dave Navarro.
Among the more disappointing King adaptations, unfortunately. 

~

I've been staring at this blog for the better part of an hour, trying to figure out if I'm missing anything. A book like The Stand and a character like Randall Flagg is enough material for a whole different series of blogs, so it feels like I'm not doing them justice. What more can I say? (Answer: Plenty.) If you haven't, for whatever reason, read The Stand, you should read it and then leave me a message in the comments with your own impressions. For a 1000+ pager, it's actually kind of a quick read.

(By the way, I had a flu last weekend when I was finishing the book. It definitely added something to the mix!)

NEXT!
The Talisman, SK's first collaboration with Peter Straub...

10 comments:

  1. I love this book. A fast read indeed. I've read it three times now and I'll roll through it at 2 to 3 hundred pages at a clip. I love post apocalyptic stories and this one certainly has all of the elements I look for. The scene in the tunnel when the musician character (forget his name now but he 'sings' that 'baby can you dig your man!?' song that gets in my head when I read this and totally pisses me off...not as much a Maroon 5 though) is trying to get out of Manhattan...so cool and scary. I bet Danny Boyle read 'The Stand' cause that tunnel thing really comes off rather tightly in '28 Days Later. Anyway...great book, shit tv adaptation. They need to remake this into two 3 hour films for the cinema. And please...demullet Randall Flagg! And do this work the justice that it deserves!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shudder... it just occurred to me while reading your comment that some genius would probably cast Adam Levine as Larry in a new version of The Stand. That'd be enough for me to avoid it, so I hope that never happens!!

      Delete
  2. When I was 16 or so, King published the uncut version of The Stand, and I think King fans acclaimed it as far superior to the heavily edited original publication. I wonder how the shorter version of The Stand reads these days, especially since you note that the thing drags in the second half.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't read the shorter version since the mid-80s, I don't think. Every re-read I've done (including this past one) has been the expanded version.

      I think the sections that are added (or restored) are mainly scenes from the Captain Trips apocalypse and a lot more about Trashcan Man. I haven't looked at a side-by-side comparison, though perhaps I should have for this blog... doh.

      At any rate, the bits that drag or seem "off" to me in the last few hundred pages are probably in the shorter version, too. Once Nick starts showing up in dreams telling Tom what to do, my eyes rolled. If there is an Eric Cantona-stle "ENOUGH!" prompt for me in King's work, that is it.

      Delete
  3. I remember being in 6th or 7th grade, circa 1977-78, and sitting in a basement classroom with windows just at the ceiling level letting in the grey light of a gloomy morning, as I overheard my Home Economics teacher talking with another teacher about reading The Stand - and being intrigued. I recall their hushed, almost awestruck tones as they discussed it. I tried to get into the book, but it just never grabbed me. Still, the effect it had on those who did read it has stuck with me for decades.

    I saw part of that TV miniseries you cited above. My interest waned pretty quickly, and I dipped into it in subsequent nights to see if anything would leap out at me. I will say that I laughed as I read this blog post, because even then I was chuckling at that mullet - Holy Hockey Hair, Batman! One thing I actually dug was Joe Bob Briggs as an Arkansas State Trooper early on, before the plague really got going. It's interesting you mention the characters walking and singing hymns, because I happened to see that part, and it just rang so false to me. I can understand what you mean about something just not translating well, as I've had similar experiences *cough*Lord of the Rings*cough.

    Plus, coincidentally again, I just got a copy of an edition of The Hobbit that is heavily illustrated with images from the Rankin Bass cartoon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This book came on my radar in 6th grade, as well, albeit about 9 years later than yours. I have a strong memory of his going on a work vacation and forgetting it on his bedside table, next to his earplugs. I didn't read it until a couple of years later, though.

      I forgot about Joe Bob Briggs being in the TV series. Nice.

      Delete
  4. Here's some strange coincidence for you: while I was reading this post, the postman paid me a visit. He was bringing me the brand-new omnibus edition of the Marvel Comics adaptation of "The Stand."

    Pretty cool.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are your postman's initials R.F. perchance?

      Delete
    2. I cannot say for sure. He was NOT wearing a blue-jean jacket, so I think I might be in the clear.

      A few other random thoughts:

      I have never heard that Anthrax album (or the song), but I've always loved the cover. I have suspected for the better part of two decades that I would probably dig Anthrax; I just never pulled the trigger on actually listening to them. The only thing of theirs I know is "Antisocial," which is admittedly pretty great.

      I definitely need to check out "Among the Missing" at some point. The one Dan Chaon story I've read was excellent.

      I loved -- LOVED -- the miniseries when it first aired, but boy oh boy, it hasn't aged well at all, in my opinion. Some of the performances are good (Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, the old coot who plays Glen), but some are not. Sadly, Jamey Sheridan goes into the "not" category for me. He has zero menace to him. Yes, he is as described in the novel ... but that's like saying you can have lunch by looking at a photo of a cheeseburger. Try that and see how satisfying it is. Sheridan is, at least, better than Matt Frewer, whose performance as Trashcan Man is one of the worst I've ever seen by a professional actor.

      All in all, "The Stand" is one of King's very best novels. I've got issues with it, but there's no denying that it struck a chord with readers the way none of his other works have quite managed to do.

      Delete
    3. Man, Matt Frewer... I like him in a few things here and there, but his performances as Trashcan Man and in that one TNG episode where he's the time traveling con man are so uniquely annoying.

      Among the Living also has 'I Am the Law,' a song about Judge Dredd, a series I only ever really enjoyed when I was in junior high, but fun timing considering the new Dredd movie. I wonder if they'll include Anthrax's 'I Am the Law' anywhere? I can't recall if it was in the Stallone version... (My Google foray was inconclusive. Losing.. motivation...)

      Anyway! Anthrax had some good stuff. They probably still do - it's been awhile. 'Antisocial' is a lot of fun, still.

      Delete