After about 15 years’ procrastination, I’m finally reading “The Stand.” I’m not sure why I resisted actually tackling the book for so long. Its length doesn’t bother me; I’ve read denser stuff in graduate school. Likewise, the horror, to my palate, comes across as fairly muted; it’s harrowing in some parts, gruesome in others, but, at 768 pages in, I have yet to feel as if I’ve truly been punched in the gut. Maybe, though, I’ve put off reading it for the same reasons I’ve not bothered to read most of King’s books: they’re everywhere, and seem, by virtue of their very ubiquity, fly under the radar.
But yeah, okay, it’s kind of an impressive book, if for no other reason than that King has crafted a 1,000-plus-page story that really hasn’t dragged its feet at all, previous complaints notwithstanding. It’s engrossing, in the same visceral, pop-sheen cerebral fishhook kind of way that shows like “Lost” or “Game of Thrones” are: by the very nature of the story, you know that everything and everyone in this imagined world is connected, and part of the fun, the thing that truly draws you in, is the desire to find out exactly how.
For such a complexly woven story, the premise is actually pretty simple, and I’m sure you know it even if you haven’t read the book: a plague has wiped out a good 90 percent of the human population, at least in America, and the survivors find themselves gathering in one of two spots, under one of two diametrically, spiritually, morally opposed leaders: the “Free Zone” in Boulder, Colorado, under the nascent leadership of Mother Abigail, a 100-year-old kind-hearted Christian zealot, or Las Vegas, under the rule of Randall Flagg, or “The Dark Man.” Forces will gather and, when the time comes, go to war.
It’s a fairly simplistic, cut-and-dried premise: Good versus Evil. The Final Showdown. The End Times. Revelation. King can be forgiven both that trope, as well as for inoculating it with a healthy dose of evangelism for two reasons: 1) he’s a practicing Methodist, and I might be both impressed and a little suspicious if it didn’t creep into his work now and then, and 2) it boils down compelling drama into something that’s easy to latch onto: Light and Dark, God and Satan incarnate. What’s simpler?
Here’s a convenient, if depressing, convergence of events: as the Buffer Zone between Boulder and Las Vegas narrows in my reading of the “The Stand,” the Supreme Court has struck down a Massachusetts law that established a physical buffer zone between protesters and patients at abortion clinics. You can read the entire ruling online if you want, but the court’s decision really boiled down to two things: 1) the notion that such buffer zones violate protesters’ First Amendment rights and 2) the designation of protesters as “sidewalk counselors.”
Dealing with the second point first: calling abortion clinic protesters “sidewalk counselors” is like calling Somalia a fun run: it’s the grossest possible misinterpretation of the situation, one that ignores intricacies and intangibles and outright distorts reality. Granted, there are some protesters who try to get their point across in a delicate, humanistic fashion: Ruth Schiavone, who has been a true sidewalk counselor for 20 years now, said upon the ruling “This is a public sidewalk. We should be able to talk to each other,” and “I think it’s very important to try to talk to her intimately,” she said. “We’re certainly not harassing or yelling.”
And, okay, maybe she’s not, but the more conspicuous of her ilk have ruined most any chance that Schiavone may have had for a claim to reasonable, intelligent dialogue. Women and girls walking into Planned Parenthood are mocked, yelled at, called “slut” and “baby killer.” When I was attending graduate school at Georgia College & State University, a group of protesters, apropos of nothing, it seemed, as I’m pretty sure we didn’t have an on-campus abortion clinic, camped out on the quad. Their ringleader, a 50-something man who looked like a cross between Gary Busey and Levon Helm, waved a pocket-sized Bible around (he never once opened it, which isn’t at all, I’m sure, indicative of his grasp on the contents found therein) and shouted at any students who happened to pass by him on the walkways. Meanwhile the rest of the group — made up of high school and college-aged kids — walked around with, I’m not kidding, gags in their mouths and handed out pictures of aborted fetuses. It would have been surreal if it weren’t so despicable.
As to the First Amendment, nothing about the “buffer zone” impedes on the rights of the protesters. “Free speech?” We can still hear you from several yards away. “Right to free assembly?” You seem to be fairly well-assembled to me. “Freedom of religion?” Biblical scholars understand that the Bible was written over the course of a period of time that was, to put it mildly, quite different from the time in which we now live. Trying to apply the Scripture as the rock-solid, not-open-to-interpretation word of God Almighty Him/Her/Itself is like trying to bring down a rhino with a Nerf gun: you are woefully ill-prepared to deal with the situation.
We can accept a story like “The Stand” because, though it pulls from sources and beliefs that some people hold as gospel, it is fiction through and through. As such, it can afford to simplify the world, to make it smaller, to have victory come at the eleventh hour in the form of, spoiler alert, the Hand of God.
But this mindset, for some, carries over into the real world. And we are, it seems, woefully ill-prepared to deal with the situation.