In the penultimate post, we reunite with old friends and begin the journey home.
It should be worth noting that we’ve got another couple of long-haul chapters at this point. Most other authors (or editors, for the matter) would have probably taken everything from Chapter 73 to 75 and chopped it up into more manageable sections. Oh, sure, there’s section breaks, but it is kinda imposing to have a nearly forty-page chapter, especially when there’s so much stuff going on at once. (On the other hand, you have someone like James Patterson, who seems to think a scene change means a new chapter. I’ve had people tell me with a straight face that having a book with 200 chapters must mean he’s a good writer, and I really struggle not to laugh in their faces.)
My point is, there’s a lot of ground to cover here. Sometimes having long chapters works in a book’s favor, and with something like The Stand where chapter length is largely “however long it needs to be,” it does work really well. But tackling the book in one go (or even in periodic updates like this), sometimes the haul does feel long.
Our focus is solely on Stu and Kojak at this point. One of the things that I do love about this section (and the chapter that follows) is that King illustrates one of the things that tend to get ignored in classic quest stories—the journey back. Using the ur-example of Tolkien, you never really get the sense that the journey back to the Shire is full of any hardship or problems that the hobbits run into. (The Scourge of the Shire doesn’t count.) Sure, it would be easy for Stu to run into Tom Cullen and then they make it back with plenty of time before winter kicks in. But I like that King doesn’t ignore the fact that Stu has a broken leg and how much that’s going to impede him on the journey back to Boulder. I like that even though Stu is one of the good guys and that he didn’t make it to Vegas, it doesn’t mean that Stu’s safe from death.
It was the final irony. He had the flu, or something very like it.
It’s stuff like this that make me really appreciate how King plots and sets up his plot points. Say what you want about his characters or writing (or even the plots and summations themselves), but when he pulls off a really good plot, he does it spectacularly. Again, Chapter 38. Not only is that chapter a great piece of world-building, explaining that not everyone who survives the super-flu is going to play some role in the larger events, but it also reminds us that infections and diseases are still out there and they’re still dangerous. Sure, Nick went through it, but he survived until he needed to.
Anyway, back to the plot at hand. Stu prepares himself for the eventual death by writing one last note to Frannie and giving it to Kojak to take back to Boulder when it happens. There’s really not a lot that happens in this first chunk that’s not confirming what we already know: Stu hears the bomb going off in Vegas, and he confirms it with his own eyes. He knows that it’s going to take a miracle to keep him alive at this point, because anyone coming from the West probably isn’t going to be much of a help.
(Question, was everyone involved in Flagg’s operation at Vegas at the time? How far does fallout effect the surrounding Vegas area? I’m not asking for The Stand 2: Vengeance of Vegas, but I’m curious.)
And then a dark figure appears in the distance…
“Who is it?” [Stu] called. “Who is that there?”
The dark figure paused, and then spoke.
“Well, it’s Tom Cullen, that’s who, my laws, yes…”
Tom and Stu trade notes on their various companions and their fates (Stu wisely waits to tell Tom about Nick’s death, although Tom takes it a lot better than one would expect), and then get down to the business of getting Stu to safety. Seeing as Stu can’t walk, and it’s about sixty miles away.
Again, even though Stu and Tom do eventually find the right car, I like that it’s not the first or second car that they come across. And even the ones that are right kind of car—they’re looking for a manual transmission—there’s still problems with the cars they find. Flats, dead batteries, etc. It’s not like God’s sitting there thinking, “Oh, my acolytes need to get to Green River before one of them dies. HERE HAVE A BRAND NEW CAR THAT WORKS PERFECTLY.” The car that they do come across is an old 1970 Plymouth, but it works well enough to get our New Intrepid Trio to a motel to rest up.
(Okay, the conveniently empty hotel rooms the three shack up in, that seems a little too easy. I’m pretty sure there’d still be a body or two hanging around. )
Now that Stu’s gotten into a warm (ish) place and has time to rest, instead of fighting for his life against the elements, he’s taken a turn for the worse. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but probably better now than in the woods and alone.
Again, this whole chapter is a nice parallel to the one way earlier on when Tom and Nick first met. Tom’s more understanding that Stu’s sick and is going to die soon if he’s not sheltered and taken care of. It is a little…convenient that so many camping supplies and food are readily found by Tom and Kojak—for as much as I was saying that hardships are largely ignored on the journeys back—but there’s a point where you do have to take the plot on its own terms. Stu’s already spent three journeys with hardships, why not have the one time where it seems like he’s going to die be a little easier on him.
Through the help of ghost!Nick, Tom finds all of the medicine that Stu needs and takes it back to him. Again, one of the things that I really like here is that King doesn’t ignore the fact that all Stu needs is bed rest and he’ll be fine. What also helps with this chapter is the timing. Winter is fast coming to the West, and Stu’s got to get better so that they can travel as much as they can before things get worse. (Speaking as someone who lives in a mainly temperate, nonmountainous region, I liked that it’s acknowledged how fast winter happens out in Colorado and Utah, and that the lack of as many people means that avalanches and snow drifts are even more dangerous than they normally are.)
Stu manages to get well, and he and Tom restart their journey home. In early November, they shack up in Grand Junction’s Holiday Inn and prepare to shack up for a long, long winter.
I think the great thing about this chapter, for as long as it feels, is that King illustrates how boring life is for the two. Sure, Stu and Tom have their various ways to keep busy: movies, Stu’s physical therapy, the Moon Base Alpha project Tom creates, but the inevitable is still there. They’re going to have to leave when the time is right or spend all winter with a growing sense of dread of what’s happening back in Boulder and with Frannie’s baby.
(It should also be noted that being cooped with people in one place, no matter how big it is, is going to get tense as time goes on. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a rooftop deck at the beach house I’m currently staying at with my extended family. As I told them, I’m not blowing them off, I just need a few hours to work by myself without dealing with the Twenty Questions.)
This section, with Tom and Stu in Grand Junction , doesn’t exactly drag the book or feels unnecessary, but really gives the right amount of sense of how boring and tedious the waiting is. Yeah, it’s probably easier if Tom and Stu wait until spring and things are easier, but…
…”What I mean is, would it be worth it to you to take a chance?”
Tom looked at him, puzzled. Stu was getting ready to try and explain further when Tom said: “Laws, everything’s a chance, isn’t it?”
It was decided as simply as that. They left Grand Junction on the last day of November.
One of the harder things about writing stories in a post-apocalyptic or isolated setting is making the passage of time feel believable. To use one of my favorite examples, Lost—we went three seasons before getting a solid confirmation of what the specific date was in “The Constant.” And it was kind of shocking to realize that only a few months had passed in the show’s universe. Sure, there was a loose timeline that the writers had given, but to hear the confirmation in the early spring of 2007 that it was only Christmas of 2004 was sobering, given how much had happened in those three months. (Also, I really love that episode. I really, really need to do a Lost rewatch one of these days.)
Here, King’s a little better with the dates, as he’s the omniscient narrator. He knows what the date is, Stu and the others have some good grasp of what the day is, but it’s not like they have smart phones or really anything else concrete to tell them what day it is. All they can go off on is when Stu left Boulder (or when Tom left Vegas, depending on who’s counting) and working from there.
Of course, when we get a significant date, it’s Christmas. Given the point of the narrative, I’m really not all that surprised but this scene works really well. I do love the scene of Stu going out to find presents for Tom and Kojak, but it’s really made all the more meaningful by this:
“You gave me my Christmas present early..”
“No, sir, I never did. I forgot. Tom Cullen’s nothing but a dummy, M-O-O-N, that spells dummy.”
“But you did, you know. The best on of all. I’m still alive. I wouldn’t be, if it wasn’t for you.”
It’s mentioned a few pages earlier that Stu and Tom are currently camped out above a traffic jam, and one with probably a lot of dead, decaying flash-frozen bodies. I think this is a better affirmation of how life goes on after such a devasting tragedy and loss of life (not just the super-flu, but all the lives lost in the name of Flagg and Mother Abagail); that these two characters are alive and they’re alive now and whatever happens in the future happens but it doesn’t matter. And given what you want to say about Christmas and its placement on the calendar, I think that putting that scene here is a reminder of what the holiday has mutated into meaning—that even in the darkest moments of winter, there’s a ray of hope.
“He never dies,” Tom said. “He’s in the wolves, laws, yes. The crows. The rattlesnake. The shadow of the owl at midnight and the scorpion at high noon….”
“Will he be back?” Stu asked urgently. He felt cold all over.
Tom didn’t answer.
The weather manages to hold out for a few days, and the two slowly make their way across the Loveland Overpass. They don’t know what’s waiting for them when they get back to Boulder, but they just need to make a little further. The snowmobiles give out, Tom and Stu keep going. Because they’re nearly home. And sure enough, a few days later…
“Stu!” the sentry yelled back. A black shape materialized out of the snow, slipping and sliding as it ran toward them. “I just can’t believe it—“
(I’d like to note—for the record, I’ve been skipping over a lot—it is interesting that the increased threat of Flagg and the disappearance and extremely likely death of the majority of the Free Zone Committee that Boulder would have graduated to posting sentries. Just in case. I do like the minor standoff that Stu has here, it’s not that Billy Gehringer isn’t going to believe it’s Stu, but….look when your opponent is a shapeshifter, you’re not taking chances.)
Despite the joyous return of Stu and Tom (and Kojak, let’s not completely forget about the dog), all is not well in the town of Boulder. Frannie has had the baby…except that it’s also contracted the superflu. Because only one of the baby’s parents was immune. (*snort* Biology does not work that way. Sorry.) But there still may be a chance for the kid.
“Stu, where are you going?”
“To the hospital,” Stu said. “To see my woman.”
As much as I have bitched and chewed out Frannie in the course of this reread, it’s really hard not to feel sorry for her here. Her whole family is dead. One of her few remaining friends not only betrayed her but also killed the people she was starting to care about. Her boyfriend went off on a suicide mission. And her last remaining link to the old world, her baby Peter, is probably dying and he isn’t more than a few weeks old.
So yeah. I do feel sorry for her. I don’t really take a lot of pleasure in giving characters endless tragedies just because I don’t like them. I don’t think anyone deserves to go through what’s happening with Frannie right now.
In her dream she saw that Stu had come back. He was standing in the doorway of her room, wearing a gigantic fur parka. Another cheat. But she saw that the dream-Stu had a beard. Wasn’t that funny?
As I said earlier on in this post, sometimes after going through so much hardship, you need a break. Even when things are still rough.
“Stu!” she cried. “Are you real? If you’re real, come here!”
He went to her then, and held her.