The Books: “The Stand” (Stephen King)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

The Stand by Stephen King

TheStand.jpgI’ll never forget my first experience with this book. I read it when it first came out (and that’s the only time I read it – so the “uncut” version is still un-read by me – and frankly, I don’t think you need an uncut version. The ‘cut’ version was plenty awesome, in my book.) Unforgettable experience reading that book. Another great American novel. I thought of it when I recently say I Am Legend, with its terrifying vision of an empty New York. A New York that still has cars in the streets, because the panic of the plague was so great, people were racing to get out, and they died en route. It’s been years since I’ve read it – so a ton of the details are lost – but suffice it to say – it’s about a plague, that “gets loose” – and kills the majority of the people on the planet. Quickly. A handful of people are left. They are all scattered, though – they do not know about each other. We get to know them, as the book progresses – we switch points of view repeatedly. Every story is a horror story. The Stand taps into the primal terror of biological warfare, of something “unbeatable” being loosed upon the land. We are, after all, just animals. Human animals. Our survival on this planet, as a species, is not at all a done deal. The Stand recognizes that. I recently read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – and that bleak book has a similar outlook. Since I was a kid I have been drawn to and horrified by these kinds of books. Remember, I’m old. So I grew up being afraid of Russia, the bogey-man across the world … and the possibility of nuclear warfare was far more vivid then than it is now (not that it is not still a threat – but anyone who remembers the Cold War will recognize the difference). I remember begging my parents to let me watch The Day After when it was on – and then lying in bed afterwards, praying to God, desperately, to save us from mutually assured destruction. It scared me SO much. War Games tapped into those fears as well. The Stand is, in its way, even more frightening – because it’s NOT nuclear apocalypse (which The Road is) – it’s a disease, morphed out of all recognition from its original state – now a monster on the loose, airborne – and it will wipe out EVERYONE. Disease does not discriminate, in the same way a nuclear blast does not discriminate. The thought of just living my life, and being “in the way” of something so destructive – was a real fear of mine growing up. Books like The Stand, and The Road really call up in me an anxious imaginative response, meaning: I am unable to separate myself from it, and I am constantly imagining myself into the action, asking nervous questions like, “How would I fare here? How would I handle that? Would I just crumple in fear? Or would I be up to the task at hand?” It really makes you ask: what are you MADE of? Could I figure out the food situation? The building a fire situation? Could I manage my fear to such a degree that I would be able to make it through the day? You wonder: who am I? How strong am I? How smart am I REALLY? I have never been tested like THAT. How would I do?

There’s a higher level to the book – and that is reflected in its perfect title. It’s not just a “stand” between the disease and remaining humanity. It’s a “stand” between good and evil. Because naturally, since the disease does not discriminate and just kill “bad” people … humanity will be tested, almost immediately – with what kind of new world they will want to build. And all of the scattered characters – making it thru a maze of horror to get out of their respective areas … slowly converge (they don’t know why) in the desert. Something draws them there. They do not know what it is. But it is obvious that something else might be propelling them, or pulling them through that maze. God and the devil. Life and the Grim Reaper. Time to battle it out, once and for all.

It’s a fantastic book, another masterpiece. King is awe-inspiring.

I knew immediately the excerpt I wanted to do today. It’s a scene that I will never forget (and I have actually forgotten much of the book – I should read it again). It has personal meaning for me, because I go through the Lincoln Tunnel on a daily basis and I would say that, oh, probably once a week – as my bus careens through the tunnel – I think of The Stand and the following scene … and I wonder … my God. How would I ever EVER get through it? I am sure I would … but it is still horrifying to contemplate. It’s my favorite “scene” in the whole book. King pulls out all the stops. His imagination is unbelievable.


EXCERPT FROM The Stand by Stephen King

By four o’clock dark clouds had begun to build over Manhattan and the sound of thunder rolled back and forth between the city’s cliffs. Lightning forked down at the buildings. It was as if God were trying to frighten the few remaining people out of hiding. The light had become yellow and strange, and Larry didn’t like it. His belly was cramped and when he lit a cigarette it trembled in his hand the way the coffee cup had trembled in Rita’s this morning.

He was sitting at the street end of the access ramp, leaning his back against the lowest bar of the railing. His pack was on his lap, and the .30-.30 was leaning against the railing beside him. He had thought she would get scared and come back before long, but she hadn’t. Fifteen minutes ago he had given up calling her name. The echoes freaked him out.

Thunder rolled again, close this time. A chilly breeze ran its hand over the back of his shirt, which was pasted to his skin with sweat. He was going to have to get inside somewhere or else stop shitting around and go through the tunnel. If he couldn’t work up the guts to go through, he’d have to spend another night in the city and go over the George Washington Bridge in the morning, and that was 140 blocks north.

He tried to think rationally about the tunnel. There was nothing in there that was going to bite him. He’d forgotten to pick up a good big flashlight – Christ, you never remembered everything – but he did have his butanic Bic, and there was a guardrail between the catwalk and the road. Anything else … thinking about all those dead people in their cars, for instance … that was just panic talking, comic-book stuff about as sensible as worrying about the boogeyman in the closet. If that’s all youc an think about, Larry [he lectured himself], then you’re not going to get along in this brave new world. Not at all. You’re -

A stroke of lightning split the sky almost directly overhead, making him wince. It was followed by a heavy caisson of thunder. He thought randomly, July 1, this is the day you’re supposed to take your sweetie to Coney Island and eat hotdogs by the score. Knock down the three wooden milk-bottles with one ball and win the Kewpie doll. The fireworks at night -

A cold splash of rain struck the side of his face and then another hit the back of his neck and trickled inside the collar of his shirt. Dime-sized drops began to hit around him. He stood up, slung the pack over his shoulders, and hoisted the rifle. He was still not sure which way to go – back to Thirty-ninth or into the Lincoln Tunnel. But he had to get undercover somewhere because it was starting to pour.

Thunder broke overhead with a gigantic roar, making him squeal in terror – a sound no different than those made by Cro-Magnon men two million years before.

“You fucking coward,” he said, and trotted down the ramp toward the maw of the tunnel, his head bent forward as the rain began to come harder. It dripped from his hair. He passed the woman with her nose against the El Dorado’s passenger window, trying not to look but catching her out of the tail of his eye just the same. The rain drummed on the car roofs like jazz percussion. It was coming down so hard it bounced back up again, causing a light mist-haze.

Larry stopped for a moment just outside the tunnel, undecided and frightened again. Then it began to hail, and that decided him. The hailstones were big, stinging. Thunder bellowed again.

Okay, he thought. Okay, okay, okay, I’m convinced. He stepped into the Lincoln Tunnel.

__________

It was much blacker inside than he had imagined it would be. At first the opening behind him cast dim white light ahead and he could see yet more cars, jammed in bumper to bumper (it must have been bad, dying in here, he thought, as claustrophobia wrapped its stealthy banana fingers lovingly around his head and began to first caress and then to squeeze his temples, it must have been really bad, it must have been fucking horrible), and the greenish-white tiles that dressed the upward-curving walls. He could see the pedestrian railing to his right, stretching dimly ahead. On his left, at thirty- or forty-foot intervals, were big support pillars. A sign adviSed him DO NOT CHANGE LANES. There were dark flourescents embedded in the tunnel’s roof, and the blank glass eyes of closed-circuit TV camera. And as he negotiated the first slow, banked curve, bearing gently to the right, the light grew dimmer until all he could see were muted flashes of chrome. After that the light simply ceased to exist, at all.

He fumbled out his Bic, held it up, and spun the wheel. The light it provided was pitifully small, feeding his unease rather than assuaging it. Even with the flame turned up all the way it only gave him a circle of visibility about six feet in diameter.

He put it back in his pocket, and kept walking, trailing his hand lightly along the railing. There was an echo in here, too, one he liked even less than the one outside. The echo made it sound like someone was behind him … stalking him. He stopped several times, head cocked, eyes wide (but blind), listening until the echoes had died off. After a bit he began to shuffle along, not lifting his heels from the concrete, so the echo wouldn’t recur.

Sometimes after that he stopped again and flicked the lighter close to his wristwatch. It was four-twenty, but he wasn’t sure what to make of that. In this blackness time seemed to have no objective meaning. Neither did distance, for that matter; how long was the Lincoln Tunnel, anyway? A mile? Two? Surely it couldn’t be two miles under the Hudson River. Let’s say a mile. But if a mile was all it was, he should have been at the other end already. If the average man walks four miles an hour, he can walk one mile in fifteen minutes and he’d already been in this stinking hole five minutes longer than that.

“I’m walking a lot slower,” he said, and jumped at the sound of his own voice. The lighter dropped from his hand and clicked onto the catwalk. The echo spoke bac, changed into the dangerously jocular voice of an approaching lunatic.

” … lot slower … lower … lower …

“Jesus,” Larry muttered, and the echo whispered back: “zuss … zuss … zuss …

He wiped a hand across his face, fighting panic and the urge to give up thought and just run blindly forward. Instead he knelt (his knees popped like pistol shots, frightening him again) and walked his fingers over the miniature topography of the pedestrian catwalk – the chipped valleys in the cement, the ridge of an old cigarette butt, the hill of a tiny tinfoil ball – until at last he happened on his Bic. With an inner sigh he squeezed it tightly in his hand, stood up, and walked on.

Larry was beginning to get himself under control again when his foot struck something stiff and barely yielding. He uttered an inhalatory sort of scream and took two staggering steps backward. He made himself hold steady as he pulled the Bic lighter from his pocket and flicked it. The flame wavered crazily in his trembling grasp.

He had stepped on a soldier’s hand. He was sitting with his back against the tunnel wall, his legs splayed across the walkway, a horrible sentinel left here to bar passage. His glazed eyes stared up at Larry. His lips had fallen away from his teeth and he seemed to be grinning. A switchblade knife jutted jauntily from his throat.

The lighter was growing warm in his hand. Larry let it go out. Licking his lips, holding the railing in a deathgrip, he forced himself forward until the toe of his shoe struck the soldier’s hand again. Then he stepped over, making a comically large stride, and a kind of nightmarish certainty came over him. He would hear the scrape of the soldier’s boots as he shifted, and then the soldier would reach out and clasp his leg in a loose cold grip.

In a shuffling sort of run, Larry went another ten paces and then made himself stop, knowing that if he didn’t stop, the panic would win and he would bolt blindly, chased by a terrible regiment of echoes.

When he felt he had himself under some sort of control, he began to walk again. But now it was worse; his toes shrank inside his shoes, afraid that at any second they might come in contact with another body sprawled on the catwalk … and soon enough, it happened.

He groaned and fumbled the lighter out again. This time it was much worse. The body his foot had struck was that of an old man in a blue suit. A black silk skullcap had fallen from his balding head into his lap. There was a six-pointed star of beaten silver in his lapel. Beyond him were another half a dozen corpses: two women, a man of middle age, a woman who might have been in her late seventies, two teenage boys.

The lighter was growing too hot to hold any longer. He snapped it off and slipped it back into his pants pocket, where it glowed like a warm coal against his leg. Captain Trips hadn’t taken this group off any more than it had taken the soldier back there. He had seen the blood, the torn clothes, the chipped tiles, the bullet holes. They had been gunned down. Larry remembered the rumors that soldiers had blocked off the points of exit from Island Manhattan. He hadn’t known whether to believe them or not; he had heard so many rumors last week as things were breaking down.

The situation here was easy enough to reconstruct. They had been caught in the tunnel, but they hadn’t been too sick to walk. They got out of their car and began to make their way toward the Jersey side, using the catwalk just as he was doing. There had been a command post, machine-gun emplacement, something.

Had been? Or was now?

Larry stood sweating, trying to make up his mind. The solid darkness provided the perfect theater screen on which the mind could play out its fantasies. He saw: grim-eyed soldiers in germproof suits crouched behind a machine gun equipped with an infrared peeper-scope, their job to cut down any stragglers who tried to come through the tunnel; one single soldier left behind, a suicide volunteer, wearing infrared goggles and creeping toward him with a knife in his teeth; two soldiers quietly loading a mortar with a single poison gas canister.

Yet he couldn’t bring himself to go back. He was quite sure that these imaginings were only vapors, and the thought of retracing his steps was insupportable. Surely the soldiers were now gone. The dead one he’d stepped over seemed to support that. But …

But what was really troubling him, he supposed, were the bodies directly ahead. They were sprawled all over each other for eight or nine feet. He couldn’t just step over them as he had stepped over the soldier. And if he went off the catwalk to go around them, he risked breaking his leg or his ankle. If he was to go on, he would have to … well … he would have to walk over them.

Behind him, in the darkness, something moved.

Larry wheeled around, instantly engulfed with fear at that single gritting sound … a footstep.

“Who’s there?” he shouted, unslinging his rifle.

No answer but the echo. When it faded he heard – or thought he did – the quiet sound of breathing. He stood bug-eyed in the dark, the hairs along the nape of his neck turning into hackles. He held his breath. There was no sound. He was beginning to dismiss it as imagination when the sound came again … a sliding, quiet footstep.

He fumbled madly for his lighter. The thought that it would make him a target never occurred to him. As he pulled it from his pocket the striker wheel caught on the lining momentarily and the lighter tumbled from his hand. He heard a clink as it struck the railing, and then there was a soft bonk as it struck the hood or trunk of a car below.

The sliding footstep came again, a little closer now, impossible to tell how close. Someone coming to kill him and his terror-locked mind gave him a picture of the soldier with the switchbalde in his neck, moving slowly toward him in the dark -

The soft, gritting step again.

Larry remembered the rifle. He threw the butt against his shoulder, and began to fire. The explosions were shatteringly loud in the closed space; he screamed at the sound of them but the scream was lost in the roar. Flashbulb images of tile and frozen lanes of traffic exploded one after another like a string of black and white snapshots as fire licked from the muzzle of the .30-.30. Ricochets whined like banshees. The gun whacked his shoulder again and again until it was numb, until he knew that the force of the recoils had turned him on his feet and he was shooting out over the roadway instead of back along the catwalk. He was still unable to stop. His finger had taken over the function of the brain, and it spasmed mindlessly until the hammer began to fall with a dry and impotent clicking sound.

The echoes rolled back. Bright afterimages hung before his eyes in triple exposures. He was faintly aware of the stench of cordite and of the whining sound he was making deep in his chest.

Still clutching the gun he whirled around again, and now it was not the soldiers in their sterile Andromeda Strain suits that he saw on the screen of his interior theater but the Morlocks from the Classic Comics version of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, humped and blind creatures coming out of their holes in the ground where engines ran on and on in the bowels of the earth.

He began to struggle across the soft yet stiff barricade of bodies, stumbling, almost falling, clutching the railing, going on. His foot punched through into some dreadful sliminess and there was a gassy, putrid smell that he barely noticed. He went on, gasping.

Then, from behind him, a scream rose in the darkness, freezing him on the spot. It was a desperate, wretched sound close to the limits of sanity: “Larry! Oh, Larry, for God’s sake -

It was Rita Blakemoor.

He turned around. There was sobbing now, wild sobbing that filled the place with fresh echoes. For one wild moment he decided to go on anyway, to leave her. She would find her way out eventually, why burden himself with her again? Then he got hold of himself and shouted, “Rita! Stay where you are! Do you hear me?”

The sobbing continued.

He stumbled back across the bodies, trying not to breathe, his face twisted in an expression of grimacing disgust. Then he ran toward her, not sure how far he had to go because of the distorting quality of the echo. In the end he almost fell over her.

“Larry -” She threw herself against him and clutched his neck with a strangler’s force. He could feel her heart skidding along at a breakneck pace under her shirt. “Larry Larry don’t leave me alone here don’t leave me alone in the dark -”

“No.” He held her tightly. “Did I hurt you? Are .. are you shot?”

“No … I felt the wind … one of them went by so close I felt the wind of it … and chips … tile-chips, I think … on my face … cut my face …”

“Oh Jesus, Rita, I didn’t know. I was freaking out in here. The dark. And I lost my lighter … you should have called. I could have killed you.” The truth of it came home to him. “I could have killed you,” he repeated in stunned revelation.

“I wasn’t sure it was you. I went into an apartment house when you went down the ramp. And you came back and called and I almost … but I couldn’t … and then two men came after the rain started … I think they were looking for us … or for me. So I stayed where I was and when they were gone I thought, maybe they’re not gone, maybe they’re hiding and looking for me and I didn’t dare go out until I started to think you’d get to the other side, and I’d never see you again … so I … I … Larry, you won’t leave me, will you? You won’t go away?”

“No,” he said.

“I was wrong, what I said, that was wrong, you were right, I should have told you about the sandals, I mean the shoes, I’ll eat when you tell me to … I … I … oooohhhowww-”

“Shh,” he said, holding her. “It’s all right now. All right.” But in his mind he saw himself firing at her in a blind panic, and thought how easily one of those slugs could have smashed her arm or blown out her stomach. Suddenly he had to go to the bathroom very badly and his teeth wanted to chatter. “We’ll go when you feel like you can walk. Take your time.”

“There was a man … I think it was a man … I stepped on him, Larry.” She swallowed and her throat clicked. “Oh, I almost screamed then, but I didn’t because I thought it might be one of those men up ahead instead of you. And when you called out … the echo … I couldn’t tell if it was you … or … or …”

“There are more dead people up ahead. Can you stand that?”

“If you’re with me. Please … if you’re with me.”

“I will be.”

“Let’s go, then. I want to get out of her.” She shuddered convulsively against him. “I never wanted anything so badly in my life.”

He felt for her face and kissed her, first her nose, then each eye, then her mouth.

“Thank you,” he said humbly, having not the slightest idea what he meant. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. “Oh dear Larry. You won’t leave me, will you?”

“No,” he said. “I won’t leave you. Just tell me when you feel like you can, Rita, and we’ll go together.”

When she felt she could, they did.

________

They got over the bodies, their arms slung about each other’s necks like drunken chums coming home from a neighborhood tavern. Beyond that they came to a blockage of some sort. It was impossible to see, but after running her hands over it, Rita said it might be a bed standing on end. Together they managed to tip it over the catwalk railing. It crashed onto a car below with a loud, echoing bang that made them both jump and clutch each other. Behind where it had been there were more sprawled bodies, three of them, and Larry guessed that these were the soldiers that had shot down the Jewish family. They got over them and went on, holding hands.

A short time latter Rita stopped short.

“What’s the matter?” Larry asked. “Is there something in the way?”

“No. I can see, Larry! It’s the end of the tunnel!”

He blinked and realized that he could see, too. The glow was dim and it had come so gradually that he hadn’t been aware of it until Rita had spoken. He could make out a faint shine on the tiles, and the pale blur of Rita’s face closer by. Looking over to the left he could see the dead river of automobiles.

“Come on,” he said, jubilant.

Sixty paces farther along there were more bodies sprawled on the walkway, all soldiers. They stepped over them.

“Why would they only close off New York?” she asked. “Unless maybe … Larry, maybe it only happened in New York!”

“I don’t think so,” he said, but felt a touch of irrational hope anyway.

They walked faster. The mouth of the tunnel was ahead of them now. It was blocked by two huge army convoy trucks parked nose to nose. The trucks blotted out much of the daylight; if they hadn’t been there, Larry and Rita would have had some light much farther back in the tunnel. There was another sprawl of bodies where the catwalk descended to join the ramp leading outside. They squeezed between the convoy trucks, scrambling over the locked bumpers. Rita didn’t look inside, but Larry did. There was a half-assembled tripod machine gun, boxes of ammunition, and canisters of stuff that looked like teargas. Also, three dead men.

As they came outside, a rain-dampened breeze pressed against them, and its wonderfully fresh smell seemed to make it all worthwhile. He said so to Rita, and she nodded and put her head against his shoulder for a moment.

“I wouldn’t go through there again for a million dollars, though,” she said.

“In a few years you’ll be using money for toilet paper,” he said. “Please don’t squeeze the greenbacks.”

“But are you sure –”

“That it wasn’t just New York?” He pointed. “Look.”

The tollbooths were empty. The middle one stood in a heap of broken glass. Beyond them, the westbound lanes were empty for as far as they could see, but the eastbound lanes, the ones which fed into the tunnel and the city they had just left, were crowded with silent traffic. There was an untidy pile of bodies in the breakdown lane, and a number of seagulls stood watch over it.

“Oh dear God,” she said weakly.

“There were as many people trying to get into New York as there were trying to get out of it. I don’t know why they bothered blockading the tunnel on the Jersey end. Probably they didn’t know why, either. Just somebody’s bright idea, busywork -”

But she had sat down on the road and was crying.

“Don’t,” he said, kneeling beside her. The experience in the tunnel was still too fresh for him to feel angry with her. “It’s all right, Rita.”

“What is?” she sobbed. “What is? Just tell me one thing.”

“We’re out, anyway. That’s something. And there’s fresh air. In fact, New Jersey never smelled so good.”

That earned him a wan smile. Larry looked at the scratches on her cheek and temple where the shards of tile had cut her.

“We ought to get you to a drugstore and put some peroxide on those cuts,” he said. “Do you feel up to walking?”

“Yes.” She was looking at him with a dumb gratitude that made him feel uneasy. “And I’ll get some new shoes. Some sneakers. I’ll do just what you tell me, Larry. I want to.”

“I shouted at you because I was upset,” he said quietly. He brushed her hair back and kissed one of the scratches over her right eye. “I’m not such a bad guy,” he added quietly.

“Just don’t leave me.”

He helped her to her feet and slipped an arm around her waist. Then they walked slowly toward the tollbooths and slipped through them, New York behind them and across the river.

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4 Responses to The Books: “The Stand” (Stephen King)

  1. siobhan says:

    i loved this book. loved it.

  2. Iain says:

    I read The Stand just recently and echo siobhan’s thoughts – I absolutely loved it.

    It’s another example of King doing what he does best: presenting the huge themes (the epic good vs. evil struggle to save humanity) through the lives of a bunch of ordinary people the reader ends up living and dying with.

    Oh, and red – the tunnel passage you excerpted had me literally struggling to breathe from start to finish. When they finally got out of the tunnel my only thought was “Thank God that’s over!”

  3. ChrisN says:

    It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve only read the uncut version…only about 10 times.

    Given the excerpt you selected, you might want to go back and read the uncut version – according to King, the uncut version includes an episode involving Trashcan Man at another tunnel over halfway across the country (one that I am more familiar with than the Lincoln Tunnel)…

  4. nightfly says:

    I’ve only seen the miniseries (Gary Sinise, excellent as ever, leading the cast). The thing you miss about the actual book is the brooding language, the author’s sense of pacing… knowing how much pressure to use beyond that which is comfortable. Now I have to read it, darn it. (I will, however, always picture Kareem Abdul-Jabar as the doomsaying prophet, no matter what. King could describe him as a 4′ 2″ Norwegian schoolgirl and it wouldn’t change things.)

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