Last week my daughter entered her teen years, which is a milestone for both of us. For her–she’s a teen! For me–I got her to 13 alive, sane (pretty much), and thriving. It also means my baby is growing up, and I’m getting old.
I’ve also been listening to a book that is sort of a touchstone for me: Stephen King’s The Stand. To many, a King book may seem like a strange choice, and to those I say ” you haven’t read the RIGHT Stephen King books.”
Stephen King’s books are scary and have some kind of villain, often supernatural. But the best of his books highlight the human condition, with or without the supernatural. And these are the most horrifying, because SK understands the human psyche. He understands that there is a very thin line within our souls delineating good from evil. He also gets that seemingly good people can be evil, or be swayed to evil in the right circumstances.
But he also understands that when horrible circumstances occur, there are those that will step up and become the best version of themselves.
And The Stand is SK showing off these skills, playing the good and evil game at its the highest level.
As my daughter grows into the person she will become, and as I re-read (well, listen) to The Stand, I’m very aware of how it began to define me as a reader at about her age.
At about 13 or 14 I read the The Stand for the first time. It was post-apocalypse before this genre was a thing. There was no YA books (as defined as such) back in the olden days of my young teenage years (which would have been the late 70’s and early 80’s), and dystopian was not even a thing.
(And I probably could digress into a whole thing as to why I was reading The Stand at this age, and how about 25-30 years later kids of the same age are reading books about the end of civilization, but I won’t. I’m sure there are lots of studies about why the young like to imagine the end of the world as we know it. I’m sure Glen Bateman could and would go on and on about it.)
I was enthralled. It was the original, cut version (the uncut version that was released a few years later was much better, imho). The end of the U.S. (and the world), where the survivors either come together under a woman who is God’s mouthpiece or a man who seems to be the same for Satan–I was all in! As a Christian who, at that time, questioned my religion but loved God, it was perfect and wonderful (and, for all wondering, that questioning never ends, but makes my faith stronger).
SK’s characters jumped off the page for me. Developed with such incredible depth and breadth, each individual in the book seems real. I didn’t realize it at the time how this sort of character development would be the benchmark for me: Since that day, I’ve craved characters like my friends in The Stand.
But, beyond the writing, there was a personal connection that happened when I read The Stand for the first time. It goes like this:
My mom & myself in the front bucket seats of our VW bus on a warm July morning on the front range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. My brother & his friend in the backseat. They were about 10 or 11, I was 13 or 14.
We’re on our way to swim meet in the beautiful town of Boulder. We didn’t go to Boulder very often; most of the meets we went to at that time were in Denver or closer to home in Eastern Colorado. So naturally, we got lost.
For those of you who don’t remember, there was a time before GPS and Google Maps. We had directions on a piece of paper, probably from a coach or another swim parent. But, since my mom didn’t know Boulder very well, the directions were only so helpful.
So, she drove and I read. I was in the part of The Stand where they were in Boulder (where the good people settle). They were wandering the town, working, walking, living. Cleaning up this small American city.
And, as I’m reading, my mom is muttering street names under her breath (along with a few choice cuss words). The same street names I reading about in the book. Seriously a mind bending experience. We’re driving through a book setting as I’m READING THE BOOK!
As she’s muttering, I’m looking up, expecting to see Frannie Goldsmith and Stu Redman and Harold Lauder walking the streets of Boulder. I’m expecting to see Tom Cullin’s crazy house, to see Nick Andros writing on his notepad. She’s muttering about ‘Table Mesa’ and ‘Arapahoe’ and ‘Pearl Street’ as I read about these characters trying to find their way in a new world on those streets.
Eventually we found our way to the pool, and we swam in the meet. All I remember about that meet is the surreal feeling that stuck with me all weekend as I finished the book during the rest of the meet.
Note: that feeling stuck with me during my time living and learning in Boulder. I seriously expected to meet Mother Abigail at some point. And, as landmarks changed throughout the years, I was disappointed. Even though I know the Boulder of now (through visits–my brother-in-law lives there), I still picture it as the Boulder of The Stand.
Listening to it is different, and the same. I find myself reciting lines, but the narrator says them differently than I’ve said them (for years) in my head. That’s okay–this is the beauty of listening to a book: You get a different take on the sentences and words and inflections.
So when I say my life as a reader has been defined by The Stand, I mean it. I can pinpoint the exact moment it happened. Because he made the character’s so real, and because I was IN the setting while reading about those characters. Now, when I read anything, I look for that connection (even if I’m not actually in the setting of the book). I want to fall in love or in hate with the characters. I want a Fran Goldsmith as a female protagonist. I want a Larry Underwood-style character as my flawed hero. I want a conflicted antagonist like Harold Lauder or Lloyd Henreid. I want the quiet strength of Stu Redman and Nick Andros.
The two main ‘characters’ of the book, the physical embodiments of good and evil, really are the only one dimensional characters. We know them (and we know Mother Abigail better than Randall Flagg), but as characters they are just black or white, good or evil. Because underneath it all they are just good and evil. There is a bit of conflict within Mother Abigail at times, because she is human. But really, the players on the chessboard of dark and light are the substantive characters.
I’ve read every King book since then (except for End of Watch, but that’s next on my TBR pile). I LOVE most of them, but none of them are as near to my heart as The Stand. It made me the reader I am today, and I’ve been known to re-read it to help me make a big decision (somehow it helps me break down that decision to good and bad).
So I say thank you to SK for writing The Stand , which made me the reader I am today. For creating characters upon which I judge every other character I read.
Keep it up. Please.