So, book two of my Classics Club venture is done, and it was a biggie. Coming in at a whopping 1320 pages, this took me quite a while. For those readers concerned about orthopaedics, I bought it on the Kindle so I didn’t put my back out carrying it around.
Oddly, considering that I thought I had devoured all the Stephen King books as a teenager, I had never read this before. My boyfriend had, however, and he did not recommend it. He considered that the start was good, and the end was good, but the middle meandered off unnecessarily and dragged. I have seen that before with Stephen King – I think I found IT to be a bit like that – so I didn’t question his judgment yet when I was compiling my Classics Club list, I decided to add this one on. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment.
The opening chapters were very exciting. I love a good apocalypse, and this one was a good apocalypse. The army has created a virus, and it leaks out into the general population of America, possibly the world. Within 300 pages, most people are dead save for the lucky few that have some sort of immunity. We meet a selection of those people during the initial few pages; Stu Redman, a perpetually unlucky man present at the first site of outbreak; Larry Underwood, an up and coming music star; Nick Andros, a deaf mute; Frannie Goldsmith, a newly pregnant student; Harold Lauder, a misunderstood man; Trash-Can Man, a pyromaniac; Lloyd Henreid, a drug user in prison for murder; and Nadine Cross, a teacher looking for the one. As they start to find one another, it becomes apparent that there are two forces converging on America. The forces of good and evil. Da Da Daaaaaaaaaaaaa!
The forces of evil are led by Randall Flagg. I was absolutely delighted about this because he is the villain in The Eye of the Dragon, my favourite Stephen King book. I have since learned that he is also the villain in The Dark Tower series, which I am going to plunge into at some point soon. The forces of good cluster around an old black lady named Mother Abagail, who is 108 years old. Gradually, the people left in America divide between these two poles, and it becomes clear that a war is looming.
I waited for the moment when this book started to ramble, but it never came. Initially the story is wide-reaching, moving between all the different characters stretching the length and breadth of America, but as the characters begin to converge the story shrinks down until there are two branches heading towards each other. The description of both people and place, as one might expect, is outstanding. The vast expanse of a country built for so many and populated by so few is awe-inspiring, the ever-present fear in Vegas – where Flagg settles – is nauseating and the constant presence of death is relentless.
It is not just individuals that have passed, but as Frannie points out at one point, America itself. America features heavily as a concept and, I think, a character in this book. Stephen King’s books are always intensely American, possibly due to the detailed description of the things that make up American life, but I particularly felt it in this book. Perhaps it’s due to the predominance of religion throughout the story, which isn’t a regular theme for King. Flagg clearly represents, or may even be the Devil, and Mother Abagail represents God’s messenger on Earth. At points she seems to be Jesus, particularly when she goes into the wilderness to repent, but later others sacrifice themselves in a far more Messianic way. It’s not a straightforward religious allegory; crucifixion is Flagg’s punishment of choice and the Nativity is inverted by his desperation for an heir, which must absolutely come from a virgin, but Christianity runs through the story like a gold seam, glinting out at points and completely visible at others.
It’s a complex book, but the plot drives the story so unwaveringly that you don’t really notice it as you’re reading. Definitely a classic in my opinion!