On Tuesday I spent time thinking about my Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read (SHANWAR) read for 2017, Stephen King’s The Stand. As the snows of winter pen me in, I want a big, long, great book that I can hold in my hands on the coldest of nights. The Stand fulfilled this role admirably and should be on everyone’s SHANWAR list. Moreover, I argued that Stephen King sits among the great writers, drawing from deep wells and playing with various kinds of books in his writing.
One of those genres—or cluster of genres—is supernatural fiction. I had promised some thoughts about Stephen King and the supernatural, and I wonder now if I may have over promised. This is a little bit about King as supernatural fiction writer, but also some thoughts about King’s characters and what his supernatural world might mean.
As I am not a fan of ghost stories, supernatural fiction is not a genre I know it all its depths. However, its more recent literary parent—Gothic literature—truly draws me in. A particular strain of the Gothic, the vampire story, is one that I know well. I’ve been caught since Matthew Lewis’ proto-vampire tale, The Monk (1796)—though I didn’t catch it when it first came out.
Vampire tales most often sit in one of two main kinds of worlds: the scientific or the supernatural. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is the model of the SciFi vampire tale, where there is a scientific or environmental—a material—reality underlying the vampirism. Though viral/plague vampire stories have waned as of late (zombie stories have fulfilled the role), religious language abounds in Bram Stoker through Anne Rice. This language is nearly gone by Charlene Harris’ Dead Until Dark books—no doubt influenced by the Buffyization of vampire tales. It may also be that Harris’ human rights framework of vampires as a virus victim may be a real construct (True Blood went that way; I just don’t know the whole series).
While vampire stories can often slide into those SciFi or supernatural camps, we often don’t know the origin stories and thus don’t know if it is a supernatural or SciFi tale. That’s part of the thrill, actually—not just the unknown, but the deeply rooted unknown of history that encounters our very thin and complicated present.
Tabitha King, Stephen King’s wife, once joked that if a vampire showed up in New York City it would get run down by a taxi. The narrator of Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum (1998) jokes that vampires should be super easy to spot and kill, given their penchant for vampiric fashion and a thousand ways to die. Yet vampires are surprisingly responsive to the modern world; the tools of technology won’t be enough to defeat them. Courage and community are needed to use the tools of today—and yesterday—to conquer the undead fiends. Just drive by the deserted town of ‘Salem’s Lot in rural Maine and you’ll see how hard they are to kill.
For we don’t know the root of King’s Eastern European immigrants that overtake ‘Salem’s Lot. In one sense, the vampires of ’Salem’s Lot (1975) act like viruses, playing themselves out when they get too strong and putting themselves in danger because the “body” they feed off of has begun to fight back against the invader. Yet their strength seems supernatural. Their origin is unknown.
This is the case for most of Stephen King’s engines of fantasy and terror. We don’t know the ultimate reason a character has telepathy, or why a house manifests its fears, or why machines take on life. The canon of fantastic writing is his library or story machinery. Thinking of The Stand’s villain, much of Randall Flagg’s origin lies also in the mist for most of his literary history.
I first encountered Randall Flagg as a child in The Eyes of the Dragon (1984). Flagg was a fairly typical medieval-style magician manipulating the king for his own evil ends. The psychological depth of the manipulation is unusual for this kind of court tale, but King’s best books are psychologically complex. As a magician, Flagg needed no origin story: sorcerer is the second oldest profession, after all. We might wonder where Merlin came from—son of an angel or demon, it is still up in the air—but no one questions the magic. Magic is in the veins of reality.
The case is more complex as Flagg reappears in The Stand—or pre-appears, as The Stand (1978) is older than my first childhood encounter. For all kinds of reasons, I am glad I didn’t read The Stand as a kid. Throughout the R.F. books—The Dark Tower series (1982-2013) and Hearts in Atlantis (1999)—Randall Flagg is a Dark Man, variously able to disappear into a crowd, infuse himself in the mind of a mob, take on the form of an animal, and travel through space and time in unaccountable ways. Randall Flagg (+ aliases) is an ageless wanderer, tall, thin, and hard. While the passage is a bit more Tell and not enough Show, this quotation from the Uncut (1990) version captures Flagg in The Stand:
There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think—and you would be right. It was the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth, a face to make water glasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees. It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody (214-5).
In The Stand, Flagg is a cowboy on the road, his army surplus jacket filled with tracts and pamphlets from every politically dynamic group of the 60s and 70s. Every crowd he enters turns to violence. Every war he joins falls from honour. Every time he makes love the woman discovers it is rape. Randall Flagg is a moral hustler in his unwavering commitment to evil. Every man he calls comes and serves in obedience.
And The Stand is, at heart, about calling. Flagg appears slowly on the scene; at first we do not know if he is a fantasy character or merely evil. Truthfully, in the U.S. in the 1980s it might have been hard to tell the difference. The first one-third of the book is simply the plague: the scientifically-generated death of 99.5% of humanity and the collapse of all cultures and social systems. As Stephen King is the master of the slow build, it is not until the plague has done its damage and its few survivors begin to blink in the morning sun of a new world that the fantastic elements begin to take shape.
While the Flagg character would suggest that it is a sorcerer’s world on the other side of the apocalypse, this is not what King creates for us. Randal Flagg is magical, but his magic is elemental in a way that is unique to this book. Flagg is able to work his way into the dreams of thousands of surviving Americans, drawing some to Las Vegas as a new home, and calling others to special service in his name. Those he lure invite he haunts—not nightmares but dark dreams of a faceless, ageless, placeless dark man, shrouded in shadow and emanating evil.
Randall Flagg is almost the perfect villain: the only fantastic character in a world of the mundane, nearly omniscient, able to manipulate dreams and nature and (maybe) even the elements. The community he sets up is completely unconquerable because they are ruthlessly committed to the task of snuffing anyone who is not them. There are no ethics to get in the way.
An old, black farmer, a great-great-grandmother of 107, dirt poor in a little country house and nearly starved to the bone, embarrassingly religious and a little batty. She does have a good sense of humour, but she also has a tendency to wander off. This is Mother Abagail, though all her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are dead. Everyone, almost, is dead.
Perhaps I am exaggerating a little bit. On the good-guy side there is also a deaf-mute, a wild boy with dissociative disorder, an intellectually disabled street person, a washed-up pop singer with narcissistic tendencies, a pregnant teenage lit major, a sociology professor who never got full professor, his dog (Kojak, not Cujo), and a factory worker from Texas. At night, in the dreamlands, ancient Mother Abagail battles the ageless Randal Flagg and draws this beggarly crowd to Boulder, Colorado, to set up a resistance army without weapons.
What I find amazing about this set up is that despite the fact that there is not a single active Christian in the entire book—other than Mother Abagail, and we only have a few paragraphs of her in the flesh—The Stand is one of the most biblically-infused contemporary novels I have read. King’s fantasy engine in The Stand is built upon the following principles:
- Sin has its consequences (Numbers 32:23; Proverbs 13:6; Roman 6:23), though real love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8)
- God has chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27)
- The least will be the greatest, and the greatest shall become the least (Matthew 19:30; 23:11)
- Despite choosing the “good” side, the characters only see through a glass darkly, struggling their way almost blindly toward the good (1 Corinthians 13:12)
- Self-sacrifice is at the heart of human experience (1 Peter 2:18-25; Isaiah 53; John 15:13)
- They are called to take nothing for their great quest except the clothes on their back (Matthew 10:10)
- Despite much evidence to the contrary, God is over all and in all (Psalm 103:19), for “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28)
- And, at its depths, even in the midst of post-apocalyptic civil war against a monomaniacal genius with every weapon of earth and sky at his disposal, our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12)
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, ESV).
This is what The Stand is all about.
It is also worth mentioning that a reader of Tuesday’s post noted that the film of The Stand—which I haven’t seen, unfortunately—captures Randall Flagg as a demon who “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14, though the cosmology isn’t perfect). I don’t see this as much in the book, but Flagg does inspire loyalty as well as fear. Another reader noted that King’s characters remind us of the presence of evil in the world. Too true.
I do not know if the principle of Matthew 16:18 continues in the world after The Stand—that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, but always a remnant will remain. However, this “horror” book by pop culture genius Stephen King is not just full of Bible ideas, but principally founded upon central biblical concepts. In the end, evil collapses in on itself and the servants of Mother Abagail look like Jesus submitting to the cross as they take their final stand against the Dark Man.
While I am tempted to ask why contemporary Christians are not able to write with this kind of biblical depth—I think it comes down to the depth and risk I talked about on Tuesday—I am intrigued by the fact that as spiritual director of American readers, King is very much like the followers of Mother Abagail in The Stand. The characters keep trying to do good, and often succeeding, without any clear idea of how to do so. God has the final say, and it is necessary and terrifying and beautiful and not a little troubling. In The Stand, God is the god of the machine.
All of this makes this kind of supernatural machinery terribly interesting. Is this a result of the power of the layering of Christianity into the American mythic framework? Will that mythic ability disappear as that layering becomes thinner and thinner? Is Stephen King doing something here, trying to inspire or root out questions of faith? Is King just curious about how to think about God in fiction? Is he perhaps asking the question of whether God would let humans destroy themselves, and would God show up if they did? Or, as a friend of mine put it, is Stephen King close to the kingdom of God?
I don’t know, but this is a book worth reading for all the complex religious and mythic questions that emerge in the best of other supernatural fiction, whether it is the novels of Charles Williams, the SciFi of C.S. Lewis, the early dystopian writers, vampire fiction, or King’s other dances macabre. I would also encourage writers who have something to say—environmental writers, feminists, people trying to buoy literacy or culture, and, please God, Christian fiction writers—to spend some time in The Stand. Perhaps Stephen King did it by accident, but it is a brilliant book.