I am not ashamed to say this is my favorite King book, hands down. It is an apocalyptic story; for those unfamiliar with the plot: the US govt, in its finite wisdom, is fooling around with nasty diseases familiar story, right? A really awful flu bug gets out and eventually takes down some 99% of the US population. We know it travels abroad but the story never leaves the 48 states. The story follows certain survivors, immune to the flu. Left alone, they begin having dreams that direct them to a gathering place. Some dream of a very old, very religious, woman in Nebraska. Some dream of a dark man or thing that threatens their sanity and security but is also a lure for certain kinds of people. It becomes a polarizing event: good people go to the old woman, bad people go to the dark man. But that is really too simplistic, not everyone is just one or the other. So it suggests that everyone is free to make a choice.
The character building is everything in a King story. There is the smart redneck from Texas, the pregnant and undirected young woman from Maine, the fat, unpleasant genius who fixates on the pregnant girl, an up-and-coming rock singer who has no belief in himself or anyone else, a deaf-mute drifter, an old sociology professor, a virgin 30-something schoolteacher, a lovable retarded young man, a seriously damaged pyromaniac, and so many others. It is they who draw the reader in, the complexities of this new existence, their place in it, their purpose, and their interactions with the others.
There are three type of journeys in this story. The first is as each of them realize there is nothing left where they are since everyone they know is dead; but this journey is just drifting about looking for people and connecting with each other. The second is as each of them start having the dreams and either travel towards the old woman or the dark man. The third, and most important, is the journey that only some of them take to meet the dark man and stop another apocalypse.
The story does teeter between a straightforward SF apocalypse story and something more supernatural or religious (not that this writer sees much difference ‘tween the two). Certainly the old woman has a pipeline to God who lets her in on just bits and pieces, and the dark man has mystical powers; he can apparently read minds, see the future, control animals, and teleport. Neither one is all-powerful or all-knowing. The woman doubts herself and her God and the dark man underestimates human will. The rational and non-believer characters have their worldview shaken by both their dreams and what they hear from the old woman.
I think I admire King sidestepping the religious “awakening” no one becomes “born again”. Often the question is posed: what would an atheist do when confronted with evidence of God? Religious types are sure we would all fall to our knees in worship. I’m not so sure; after all, would religious types instantly feel comfortable as an atheist if given sufficient proof of the non-existence of God? I don’t think so; no one gives up their fundamental beliefs so spontaneously. So our rational-thinking characters admit there are things they don’t know, they admit there may be some divine-type direction going on; but they can’t just believe that quickly. Instead, they sort of squint their eyes and go with their gut feeling to have faith in the old woman.
A really good King story is immersive with a minimum of grossness. The reader has over 1000 pages in which to wallow; to really connect with the characters. King is often criticized for an over-abundance of detail so for many, this isn’t what they enjoy. But for some, like this reader, it’s as close as I’ll get to actually entering the story and I enjoyed every minute of every time I’ve reread this tome. ~~ Catherine Book
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