Stephen King & the War for America’s Soul

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, "The Stand"

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, “The Stand”

In my American Fantasy course this past semester one of my students, Steven Cook, helped me appreciate Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. King wrote the novel to wrestle with nasty truths about America that were exposed by the Vietnam War. After reading Steven’s essay (the students could choose their own fantasy novel for their final project), I can see it as an important tool for examining the legacy of the Iraq War as well.

I’ve noted in the past how King, like Poe before him, dreams America’s nightmares. Steven writes that The Stand captures two sides of America: the America of “hatred and slights” and the America “that learns from the sins of the past and attempts to rebuild.” He quotes the following passage from the novel as his essay’s epigraph:

But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people—for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what was on for us.

Those doing the tussling in the novel are the few survivors of a killer flu that has been generated by the U.S. military. Due to human error, the flu escapes the research facility and kills 99.9% of the world’s population. The good survivors are led by a saintly African American grandmother who sees visions, and they congregate in Boulder, Colorado, a place associated with the pristine West, hippy communes, and flower power. They dream of starting over and getting America right this time:

[Harold] sensed, more clearly than any of the others, that that was what the Boulder Free Zone was all about… Boulder itself was a cloned society, a tabula so rasa that it could not sense its own novel beauty.

King here is hearkening back to the early American settlers’ dream that, in the New World, they could leave history behind and build a city upon a hill. In the novel, it’s as though Noah’s flood has given the world a second chance to get things right. I mention in passing that the settlers who founded the 1634 English settlement where I live–St. Mary’s City, Maryland—came over in two ships named the Ark and the Dove.

Boomers like King and myself (King is 67, I’m 63) were raised on John F. Kennedy’s idealism– “Ask not what American can do for you, ask what you can do for America”–which was decimated by the Vietnam War. We saw the country that had founded the Peace Corps unleashing horrific fire power upon a tiny country. When we witnessed the defoliation of the Vietnamese jungles and when we learned about the My Lai massacre, we began wondering about ourselves. Maybe we weren’t as good as we thought.

The Iraq War has raised similar issues. Somehow the justified anger over 9-11 got twisted into a preemptive strike against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks and that posed no real threat to us. Suddenly our leaders were manufacturing and selling us phony intelligence reports and ordering the torture of suspects. Once again Americans of conscience were filled with self doubt.

In King’s novel we see America’s dark side in the diabolic flag-waving Randall Flagg, a figure who comes to realize that he is the devil. He sets up his center of power in Las Vegas and begins assembling military hardware. A battle for the soul of America is in the offing.

In his essay, Steven smartly focuses on characters that wrestle with which side to join. Will they honor the light within or will they follow the darkness? Steven rightly observes that the real drama of the novel lies within their internal struggles. He looks at two characters who were bullied as children and notes how Nick, who is deaf and dumb, manages to rise above his past grievances while Harold, who was overweight, does not.

In an allusion to Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, King shows Nick considering but rejecting Flagg’s dark call. Here’s how Steven’s essay describes it:

Nick’s temptation is not so much that of gaining power, prestige, and avenging old slights, but rather having abilities that he had been robbed of from birth…. Rather than spending a long time trying to reach a decision, Nick rejects the offer immediately and from then on sticks to it: “He wanted all the things the black manshape had shown him from this desert high place…. But most of all he wanted to hear… [B]ut the word he said was No.” Despite all the things that Nick is offered, he still refuses, sensing that, despite what the creature in his dreams is offering, it comes at a price that is too steep. If we assume that the worship the dark man in his dreams demands is basically paying homage to the old destructive ways of society, then his refusal specifically marks a rejection of the principles of the darker side.

Harold, by contrast, in unable to  rise above “his inner demons and the relics of the old world,” which he has come to see as integral to his identity. He thinks that accepting the new opportunity that Boulder offers would be “to murder himself”:

[H]e himself, when faced with the knowledge that he was free to accept what was, had rejected the new opportunity. To seize it would have been to murder himself. The ghost of every humiliation he had ever suffered cried out against it. His murdered dreams and ambitions came back to eldritch (unholy/otherworldy/strange) life and asked if he could forget them so easily. In the new Free Zone he could only be Harold Lauder. Over there [in Last Vegas] he could be a prince.

In the novel, the darkness ultimately turns in on itself, accidentally blowing itself up with its own nuclear bomb. The citizens of the Boulder Free Zone, who would have been decimated in a war, are given a chance to build the world of their dreams.

Steven points out that the reprieve is only temporary, however, as Randall Flagg survives the blast. In the book’s conclusion, he is plotting his comeback.

Americans need to know that our dark side is always with us and always has been. Hawthorne, for instance, describes it at work in colonial times in his story “Young Goodman Brown.” There we see a devil figure, a literary forerunner of Randall Flagg, informing Brown,

I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

We will revisit the decision to invade Iraq in the upcoming presidential election, in part because of its ongoing consequences (the rise of ISIS), in part because of the insight it gives us into candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. After all, Clinton voted for the war (although she now describes that vote as a “mistake”) while Bush has reassembled, as his foreign policy advisors, the very men who led us into the Iraq War.

In other words, we must recall that Randall Flagg is alive and well, only too ready to lead us to war with Iran. He will tempt up with our fears and with false promises (“we will be greeted as liberators”). Can we learn from our mistakes and do things right this time or will we be pushed, by our “hatred and slights,” into another Armageddon? Can we be the everyday heroes that King describes in his book, those who choose the light, or will we be seduced by dark incentives? Few writers today ask that question more compellingly than Stephen King.

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