My Pandemic of Preference: Three
A Lynchline Special, Part 3 of 4: February 6, 2023
Do you remember when you were finally old enough for your parents to have The Talk with you? I mean, of course, The Talk about how we define horror and its spectrum of emotional effects. Oh, wait, you never had that talk? Well, if you’re a parent now, you absolutely should sit down with your kids for a frank and honest exploration of the topic, because if you don’t talk about horror with you kids… someone else will. Probably this guy, in fact:
King, in Danse Macabre (and later in various interviews and asides and Facebook posts) established a theoretical hierarchy of horror sensations: “…terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion.” Although characterizing it as a ladder, he also adds in DM: “My own philosophy as a sometime writer of horror fiction is to recognize these distinctions because they are sometimes useful, but to avoid any preference for one over the other on the ground that one effect is somehow better than another.”
King sorts these sensations by “fineness,” which he takes to mean whether the engaged response seems to come more from the intellect (finer) or the gut (meaner). Terror, in his connotation, is purely intellectual, revulsion purely visceral, and horror flits about somewhere between the two. It is a useful conversation to begin, and I disagree with it only in the most amiable fashion. As with most categorizations of aesthetic experience I find it difficult for someone to be entirely wrong and very easy to be incomplete.
Even Arthur Machen, who probably most closely described the qualities I prize in horror fiction (for me, the finest sensations of horror are akin to a sort of awe, the expectation and the receipt of disquieting revelation; Machen describes this ideal as “ecstatic” and catalogs it as “…rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown”) was more dancing and hand-waving around his own feelings than describing an all-encompassing matrix of possibilities. So it goes! I still think it’s useful hand-waving, thus:
When trying to define horror I sometimes use the terms “the cold thrill” and “the warm thrill.” The cold thrill is the horror of comprehension, of grasped implications, of putting evidence together to realize some awful truth. The warm thrill is adrenalized and immediate, the shock of something appearing at a window, of something chasing you, of proximate threat. Neither sort of experience is, in my opinion, 100% intellectual or 100% glandular; that’s really the primary point on which I diverge slightly from King’s taxonomy.
Imagine that you are floating at leisure in a warm aquamarine surf just off some tropical island, and a prowling shark gives your foot a curious nudge. That’s the warm thrill, the sudden explosion of nervous energy, possibly the sudden explosion of bladder contents into the water. Now imagine that you make it back to shore and later see drone footage of the area you were paddling in, and you note the sleek gray shapes of dozens of sharks going about their business in the surf, and you realize that you were all but surrounded by them the whole time you thought you were having an idyllic float. That’s the cold thrill, the dreadful realization, 2+2 equals “holy shit, that was close.”
(This example is of course unkind to the shark, which is more malicious in our imaginations than in reality, but the imagined shark is very definitely an object of horror and I don’t think I need to tie myself in too many apologetic knots for having cast our finny friends in the role of menacing figures. )
The cold thrill, the warm thrill, and the gross-out. That’s a tolerable summation of the horror writer’s most basic toolkit. Throw in some essential flavors of atmosphere, of course. Eeriness, malaise, disquiet, and so forth. I love a good eeriness that never quite rises to the level of a concrete supernatural threat, or at least manages to put off doing so for as long as possible, and although he rarely seems to talk about it Stephen King has always been excellent at delivering that particular sensation. His Dark Tower sequence, in particular, is saturated with it— a sense that every corner of every world is haunted by something, or threaded with lines of unseen power.
Cold terror, warm horror, the squicky gross-out, a few crucial atmospheric stylings… that still leaves one important concept, a sort of junior partner to the major sensations, but perhaps the most difficult to consistently deliver— I think of it as “spookiness.” Sometimes we seem to get a glimpse of hidden layers of reality. We catch the far-off hum of machinery rumbling away at an unknown purpose. That’s what defines the spooky… it’s a hint, a peek, a chilling apprehension of something almost there, something perhaps plausibly not there, something we might prefer not be there.
Many years ago, a relative told me he’d been spending some time in the hospital with one of his wife’s older family members, a man who’d had some sort of major emergency (a heart attack, if memory serves). Each day, my relative and his wife would visit, bringing that day’s newspaper (this was before smartphones, kids, and before the internet as we know it) with them, and each day the man seemed to be steadily improving. One day, as the visit was drawing to its customary close, my relative stood up and set the newspaper atop the man’s bedside table. The man smiled, and in a completely calm and conversational tone, said thank you, he appreciated the visits, and that it was the last time they’d need to bring him a paper. My relative thought nothing much of the remark— perhaps the man hoped to go home soon? The next morning, his wife received a phone call informing her that her family member had died in his sleep.
Now, any number of things could have happened here. Least plausibly, but not at all impossible— my relative made up a ghost story on the fly. Or perhaps the man in the hospital told someone something like that every day as a matter of conversational habit. Or perhaps he’d really hoped to leave the next day, and by sheer coincidence died instead. We’re pattern-matching creatures, and we all say idle things like “cripes, I’ll probably get killed tomorrow,” and we readily forget the ten thousand times such utterances don’t pay off, but we never, ever ignore the rare instances they do. So, coincidence and observational bias—
Or perhaps the man really knew something, somehow.
It’s spooky, you see? Something happened, but was it a hoax, a misunderstanding, a perfectly natural phenomenon, or a tiny glimpse of something operating beyond the rules of life as we commonly understand it? I suspect that spooky moments have a special sort of resonance because they’re the closest most of us will ever come to having a breach with accepted reality while we’re alive. Few, if any of us, have ever been attacked by a werewolf or chased by an acidic blob from outer space. But we have all had those moments when the hair on the back of the neck goes up and a chill seems to settle in our bones, because maybe, just maybe, there was something…
Anyhow, Stephen King is also fairly reliable at crafting such moments in his fiction, like little chips of uncanny chocolate in the weirdness cookies. The Stand contains one or two of his very finest spooky bits, and in a pleasant (and not at all common) turn of events, the 1994 miniseries keeps them alive through the adaptation process.
One that I neglected to remark upon actually came near the end of the last episode. After a pleasant dinner, Mother Abigail adopts a “now down to business” tone and asks her guests how they knew where to find her house. “Through the dreams,” Nick and Ralph reply, and she nods gravely, as though not quite surprised yet still digesting the magnitude of the information. I had quite forgotten about this nuance since my last viewing of the series, this hint that the dream Abigail and the flesh-and-blood Abigail are partly overlapping but not entirely congruent phenomena. The real Abigail has not actually been privy to every word of every conversation; she is part of a force that has used her face and her voice in ways that even she does not quite understand. Now that’s proper spooky, the idea that there are hidden aspects and mechanisms at work even in the guidance our protagonists are receiving from some higher power. There is still room for mystery and disquiet, even while the plot is driven forward by this magic. That’s a deft little touch— once again, not one every creative team would take the time to preserve. Let that thought carry us on, past the halfway point and into episode three…
III. THE BETRAYAL
A moody in medias res opening, as we find Stu and company somewhere in middle America, performing an emergency appendectomy on a fellow traveller by the light of half-a-dozen gas lanterns. Stu, scalpel-wielding and sweating buckets, is so far out of his element it would be hilarious if his hands weren’t red to the wrists. Franny crouched beside him with a medical textbook completes the miniature horror tableau— so much for the glorious, freewheeling adventure of post-apocalyptic life, eh?
This highlights one of the most interesting things about the “chosen one” narrative (an extremely reductive and lazy shorthand in this case, but it’s a common term of art and I’m not submitting this newsletter as a master’s thesis, so neener neener) in The Stand— the protection it offers has pretty hard limits. Survivors are granted immunity to the plague, a limited subscription to some disturbing dreams, and a pat on the back. After that, they can still get hurt, even for foolish or anticlimactic reasons. Dream-Abigail doesn’t tell Stu “don’t worry, kid, God’s got a plan for you”— she tells him he’s close to death and needs to get ready to fight. In the novel there’s an entire brief chapter dedicated to telling little stories of survivors who made it through the flu and subsequently kicked the bucket like trees falling in the woods while nobody was around to hear. A little girl who fell of a bicycle, a man dying of tetanus, etc. Our poor appendectomy patient joins their ranks, bleeding out by the Coleman light, but his sacrifice highlights an intriguing artistic choice— everyone caught up in this mess is still potentially vulnerable.
The next day, while Harold simmers bitchily beside the campfire and Glen heads off to town to scrounge for CB radios with newly introduced supporting character Judge Farris (Ossie Davis), Stu and Fran have a conversation in the woods. Fran mentions that the previous night’s dreams were the worst yet, full of people crucified alongside roads and highways. Stu says he’s been having the same dreams, and that the crosses seem to be made of barn beams and telephone poles. This is the second conversational mention of the idea that Flagg and his people are crucifying anyone who stands against them or violates Flagg’s rules, and it’s an interesting way to get past the obstruction of the network standards and practices people, who stood firm on the edict that visualizing crucifixions was a no-go for prime time in 1994. I can only imagine Mick Farris and Stephen King giggling all the way to production- “We can’t show that? Oh, don’t you worry, no problem at all. We won’t show a thing. We’ll just keep bringing it up explicitly in dialogue, over and over again, so nobody could possibly miss it or avoid imagining it… suckers…”
Frannie also confesses that she is two months pregnant (the ex-boyfriend writes, and having writ, moves on to die offstage of the flu), and she and Stu have a lingering romantic encounter that starts gingerly, tentatively and ends with passionate release. In Stu’s presence Frannie is allowed to finally shed the wobbly girl-woman act and pick an age and stick with it, and it’s about goddamn time.
Afterward, Frannie and Stu, making no effort to conceal their affection, approach Harold for an uneasy confessional. The uncharitable interpretation of this scene is that it perpetuates the treatment of Frannie as a prize to be contested by Stu and Harold; the charitable view is that Stu and Fran are doing their unpolished best to preserve amity and honest communication in their travelling party. Perhaps it’s a little of both, but the unalloyed good here is that as with Fran, these events serve as a catalyst for Harold (who secretly watched the new lovers having their tryst), who finally comes into his own now that his vague sense of persecution and betrayal has something concrete to build upon. Nemec immediately banishes tediously sullen boy-Harold; the new guy is smoother, more charming, more manipulative, and absolutely seething for payback.
In Vegas, life is far from sunshine and giggles. Under the glare of armed guards, the good citizens of Randall Flagg’s city are sweeping bodies and debris from the streets. A profoundly sun-lashed Trashcan Man wakes up in a hotel room, his oozing wounds bandaged. He is obviously more damaged and delicate than ever. His welcoming party consists of Lloyd Henreid and our old friend the Rat Man, who is wearing fringed gauntlets and what can only be described as some kind of studded leather adventuring harness. I don’t, uh, know what’s going on here. I’m not sure any human being does, but Rick Aviles, to give the guy his due, swaggers around in this stuff with a credible level of don’t-give-a-shit. It’s the end of the fuckin’ world, nerds, and he’ll dress like a man who memorizes Bard spells every morning if he feels like it.
Trashcan Man is to get dressed and properly meet Flagg at last. After just a few moments in Trash’s presence, the Rat Man turns to Lloyd and whispers, “Dude’s crazy!”
“Like we’re not?” Lloyd growls. It’s interesting that there’s no honeymoon for the Vegas side of the storyline. Even Flagg’s most loyal lieutenant, from the very start, seems to be admitting that their version of paradise exists on borrowed time. Still, he does his job, ushering Trash into the austere marble penthouse suite Flagg haunts when it seems to suit him.
What follows is a quiet, excellent scene, once again strangely close to touching, showing the perverse way this inhuman entity drags Trash along with manipulation that is still the closest thing to support he’s ever known in his life. The symbol Flagg offered to Lloyd Henreid was a jail cell key; the token he dangles before Trashcan Man is a Zippo lighter. Matt Frewer’s eyes follow the flame with sublime absorption, until the fire in Flagg’s hand becomes a magic stone. I am doubly convinced now of my earlier assertion that Frewer is at his very best when Trash isn’t saying much; as he takes the stone there are no hysterics, just an impossibly shy “I love you,” as though the words are bubbling up from somewhere inside Trash that has been sealed by pain for decades.
These few scenes emphasize the nature of Flagg’s approach in this game between the forces of light and darkness. Flagg’s kingdom is inherently unstable, and his chosen agents are broken and hungry people. He doesn’t offer them reciprocal love or even respect— he offers them structure, fulfillment, blood, vengeance. Flagg taking Las Vegas as his seat of power isn’t just a commentary on the American cultural landscape, it’s a reflection of his willingness to take huge risks. Even before the agents of the opposition have begun to interfere with his schemes, he’s betting everything he has on a set of weapons that could easily turn in his hands. This is a bit of that, whadayacallit, foreshadowing stuff, I think.
Stu and company make it to Boulder, Colorado where Mother Abigail receives them and their dumbass questions with an extremely polished set of wordless “Bitch, please” glances from the fabulous Ruby Dee. Meanwhile, Nadine, still dreaming of a dark and gruesome romance with Flagg, is making her own way in that direction as the passenger of Teddy Weizak, who is played by none other than lil’ Stevie King himself:
The push-pull going on in Nadine’s heart is illustrated by a nice little bit where she sees a crow perched atop an abandoned car, and sticks her head out the window to look at it with something like haunted longing as Teddy drives them on past.
Time has jumped forward a bit. We find out that it’s now August. Nick, Glen, Stu, and Ralph are having a congenial sit in a deserted Boulder amphitheater. Glen needs reminding that today is the day they’ll be attempting to restart a power plant. Ralph asks how he could have forgotten, and Glen snaps that he didn’t forget— he blocked it out. He gives a little speech that, in less capable creative hands, might have just been an irascible character detail, but here highlights one of the ongoing philosophical conundrums of the story— with the vast majority of the human race so freshly stuffed into its grave, is the rush to start the old business up again really such a bright idea? All those gadgets and devices left littering the landscape, as Glen points out— everything from can openers to cobalt bombs, waiting for God-knows-who to pick them up.
RALPH: Aw, hell, professor— what’s so bad about puttin’ the rocks back in peoples’ Scotch?
GLEN: It’s the Old Way. And the Old Way was a death trip.
In 1994 that was interesting enough speculation, but from where I now sit in 2023, watching the unfolding set of global jackpots we’ve stumble-fucked our greedy collective way into, these lines have a vivid prescience. Ray Walston once again bats .1000 as Glen Bateman, incisively puncturing the relaxed and genial atmosphere as only a good actor playing a good teacher can. What the hell are we really doing here, he asks— how is it that we’ve all been brought together by collective dreams, on the word of an impossibly old woman who claims to speak for God, and while we’re all waiting for the next revelation in that sequence of apocalyptic events, we’re all back to tinkering with plumbing and electricity and cars and furniture and so forth, as if life has just been temporarily disrupted rather than hurled off its previous foundations?
As if to stress the weirdness and ambivalence of the situation, the very next scene features Mother Abigail laughing herself hoarse as she plays with a radio-controlled lawn mower (a device that looks almost insanely dangerous to my inner first responder). Larry Underwood and Joe are seen to have arrived in Boulder, and they are present to witness a huge caravan of new arrivals, including Teddy Weizak and Nadine, pull up in front of Abigail’s house. Nadine, urged on by the inner voice of Flagg, presents herself to Abigail, who takes an immediate set against her. Even Harold’s existence was brushed off by Abigail without a comment, but Nadine seems to be too deeply wound up in the Dark Man’s affairs to be given a neighborly chance. Though the confrontation is little-noted by the crowd (and confusing rather than threatening to the few who pick up on it), Nadine and Flagg aren’t making any real effort to conceal Nadine’s true allegiance. This isn’t subterfuge, it’s a flex.
Next, Boulder’s small crew of engineering nerds successfully brings the power plant back to life. The cheers of the spectators and the upbeat music are humorously contrasted with a montage of desiccated corpses whose appliances suddenly spring back to life. You thought your washer and dryer had a frustratingly long cycle? Imagine being this guy:
With the lights back on, the good people of Boulder convene a town hall at which they sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a mix of hope and uneasiness, continuing the theme of grappling with possibilities in this liminal time and space. Spotted in the crowd— “Teddy Weizak” and his buddy, miniseries director Mick Garris:
The primary agenda item is the ratification of a “Boulder Free Zone Committee,” based on a set of names allegedly handed down by Mother Abigail: Stu Redman, Nick Andros, Ralph Brentner, Larry Underwood, Sue Stern, Frannie Goldsmith, and Glen Bateman. Stu introduces Glen to the crowd as hailing “from Woodville, New Hampshire,” which is intriguing— if you’ll recall my snarky map adventures from last time, New Hampshire is a much more geographically likely place for Glen to have collected Stu as well as Harold and Fran. Was the “Attleboro, Massachusetts” caption one of those little production misunderstandings? Or did Glen Bateman just happen to know someone with the perfect summer house in which to crash for the apocalypse?
Once the matter of the committee is settled, there is a brief mention of one of my favorite details from the novel, the appointment of a “turning-off committee,” a group of people tasked with entering every structure in Boulder and turning off or unplugging every device left on when the power went out during the pandemic, lest any of them should burn out and start a catastrophic sequence of fires. The miniseries greatly compresses the power plant subplot from the novel, in which the power is not turned on until well after the meeting and the turning-off is a necessary prerequisite rather than an afterthought, but I do appreciate even passing hints at the massive systemic challenges of maintaining a livable urban area following a civilizational collapse.
The meeting ends with the dramatic revelation that Mother Abigail has gone missing. Frustrated, in her own way, with the same ambiguousness Glen Bateman alluded to, and excoriating herself for the sins of pride and self-indulgence, she has left a note explaining that she intends to walk into the wilderness and seek a vision from God setting her on the right path for whatever comes next.
In her absence, the committee trepidatiously sets about the business of dealing with Flagg. This meeting also folds up and compresses a lengthy section of the book, but some of the gist remains unchanged. The committee understands that knowledge is their most urgent deficit, so agents (referred to as ‘scouts’ or ‘spies’ depending on the mood of whoever’s talking) are to be sent west to gather intelligence about the state of Las Vegas and its surroundings. One of them is to be Tom Cullen.
Glen Bateman places Tom under hypnosis so the committee can give him his instructions. The committee is unnerved by how steady and resolved Tom is while in this state. Frannie is so disquieted that she asks, “Are you the same Tom that Nick met in Oklahoma?” To this Tom replies, “Yes. And no. I am God’s Tom.” This is a good spooky bit, but not as good as its literary counterpart. In the novel, Tom reels off a great deal about Flagg and provides an update on Mother Abigail’s situation, and Stu is the one who is prompted to ask him who he is. “I am God’s Tom,” is one of the most chilling moments in The Stand; Mick Garris actually does a bang-up job of keeping the energy and tension alive for a lengthy scene of people sitting around a kitchen table staring intently at Bill Fagerbakke, but I still wish so much of the scene’s original context hadn’t been adjusted or excised.
Next, we get another glimpse of essential housekeeping operations around Boulder, as the body clean-up detail (of which Harold Lauder is a part) prepares to empty a church of the dozens of corpses that have been sitting in its pews for nearly two months. Stephen King and Mick Garris are also members of this clean-up detail, which is a sly joke. It’s not too often that a creator will take on-screen responsibility for hauling out the bodies they put there.
Nadine, whose month is turning into a bit of a supernatural man-crow related trash fire, has been assigned the task of non-penetratively seducing Harold in order to channel his personal grievances in a direction Flagg can use. While they lounge together on the couch drinking wine, Harold remarks upon its similarity to blood. “I suppose that’s why they use it for communion rituals,” says Nadine, who then makes sure that Harold is clear on who they work for and what they must eventually do in their remaining time in Boulder. “Drink your wine,” she says, insisting rather than flirting, and the symbolism becomes clear— Lloyd his key, Trash his lighter, and Harold his skeevy creature comforts. Harold has no way of realizing that his pledge is one-way; no magical stone appears to be forthcoming for his service.
Shortly after they shack up together, Flagg sends Harold a dream revealing the location of many, many boxes of dynamite, and Harold’s last great arts and crafts project begins. This leads to one of the most singular bits of the entire miniseries. Harold is seen sweating in his basement, building a bomb, listening to The Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever.” Nadine wanders in to check on him, turning off the music to do so. “What the hell are you doing?,” he yells. “Don’t SCREW with my DISCO, Nadine!”
Nadine does not screw further with his disco, and when the bomb is completed, she, although possibly the most conspicuous enemy agent in the history of enemies or agents, manages to place it in a closet at Fran and Stu’s place, where the committee will be having one of its regular meetings that night.
Just after nine o’clock, while Free Zoners play in the park and the committee gathers for its seemingly endless list of action items, Harold and Nadine climb a hill to have a good view of their bouncing baby fireball. Nine-fifteen sharp is Harold’s plan.
However, Mother Abigail comes back from the wilderness just then, absolutely beat to hell. The folks in the park run to catch her before she topples over. Props to the props and makeup people; Ruby Dee looks like she has been run over by a combine harvester.
With seconds to spare, Mother Abigail sends a psychic warning to various members of the committee. While nearly everyone else is running around in terror or confusion, Nick Andros hurls himself at the closet and frantically digs around for whatever must be hidden there. As a result, he is holding the bomb about a foot from his chest when it goes off. The resulting explosion is, in my semi-expert opinion, not bad at all, considering. It’s a little too liquid-y like many Hollywood explosions, but the staging is ambitious and quite a few stunt people are in frame when it goes ker-blammo out the windows of the house.
A striking scene follows in which Frannie wakes up back in the sunset light of the Hemingford Home cornfield. Dream-Abigail sits on the porch. Frannie worries that she has died, but like Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven, it turns out she’s just in Nebraska. Abigail has very little comfort to give, just directions, and Frannie is understandably pissed off, but Abigail is inflexible. The ritual to break Stephen King’s writer’s block (I’m not even being snarky, people, his story about how and why he decided to blow up the Free Zone committee is pretty famous) requires an old-timey Abrahamaic show of faith, a sacrifice to God’s will with no guarantees that the sacrifice won’t become literal. There’s nothing at all here about how much God loves anyone or how special He thinks they are, just a straightforward command— Randall Flagg must be confronted, and it must be done in this manner, and he will never allow anyone in the Free Zone to survive if any lesser accommodation is sought.
Harold’s bomb managed to get Nick Andros and Sue Stern, as well as a short list of Sir-or-Dame-Not-Appearing-in-This-Miniseries types, leaving the four surviving male members of the committee to walk out of town, unprovisioned and unprepared, and keep on walking all the way to Vegas. A bold move— we’ll find out next week if it pays off for them.
HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: I am grateful for your indulgence as we enter the home stretch of this lengthy dissection of one of my old hobbyhorses. I apologize for not getting this up as I intended to last night; while proofreading I began experiencing frustrating migraine-like symptoms, and I noticed that my typing and concentration had become so bad that, like a cat walking over a keyboard, I was actively installing fresh typos rather than removing them. I giggled, decided to play it smart, and went to bed. I’m still not great skull-wise today, but I seem to be improving.
Next week on The Stand— Stunts! Arwen’s life-force is now linked to the Ring! More stunts! Little pink motorbikes! Floating severed heads! Atomic cock!