Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and they are right, at least sometimes. I know someone struck by lightning three times. Two of America’s Founding Fathers died on July 4th – a coincidence no writer would dare.
The unexpected novel properties of truth lead many young writers to make the mistake of thinking reality is a good substitute for plot, and when receiving criticism about how unbelievable the story is, complain “But it really happened!” Then you have to explain to them that it doesn’t matter if it really happened, in fiction, the task of the writer is to make people believe it happened. Beliefs are much, much stronger than reality. We adopt certain beliefs because they keep us safe. Because there is nothing safe about reality.
For years my favorite book was Stephen King’s The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition; there have been multiple television productions of The Stand, none of them *quite* doing the King’s work justice, which is not surprising. The magic of King is in the deep way you get to know the individual characters that populate his stories. There are monsters human and inhuman haunting the streets of King’s stories, but in every one of them, human nature is a thing with sharp teeth. What Nora says to Max in White Palace (by Glenn Savan) about Mark Twain, after reading Huck Finn, also applies to King: “He’s got a real good fix on people.”
Never have I felt more sure of King’s fix on people than on January 6th, as I watched the Capitol Riots play out in an almost identical fashion to the final episode of King’s most recent TV adaptation of The Stand – here is a side-by-side comparison of the truth and the fiction. Both contain leaders that scorn “losers”, both contain scenes with a horned master of ceremonies of chaos, both contain powerful leaders dancing in victory even as the flames of their defeat are ignited. You tell me, which is stranger, truth or fiction?
The Language of Losers
In The Stand, “Nature contains winners and losers,” Flagg tells his followers, a sentiment former President Donald Trump often repeated in interviews and Tweets.
The Horned Hounds of Justice
In The Stand, the good guys have arrived in Las Vegas to make their stand against the bad guys. They are captured and there is a show trial, presided over by an exotic dancer wearing a huge, hairy horned hat upon her head.
Flip the channel to the January 6th Capitol riots and who should stroll into the chamber of American lawmakers, all stranger than fiction with a huge hairy horned hat upon his head but the “QAnon Shaman”, a bit of fiction one Jacob Anthony Chansley has applied to his identity.
The Dismayed Participants
In The Stand, the Dark Man’s right hand man, accidental mass murderer Lloyd Henreid is goaded by good guy Glen Bateman into shooting him (Glen). The mob is one minute egging on the horned justice and the gun wielding prosecutor, Lloyd, howling for blood, the next it is shocked into silence as an innocent old man with his hands tied behind his back lies dead in front of them in a pool of blood. “It was supposed to be sham trial!” the horned one hisses at Lloyd, mad at him for taking it too far and spilling real blood. They are terrified by Lloyd’s accidental murder – it’s not that they are appalled at the death of the innocent man, but rather the possibility of being punished by the Walkin’ Dude, who wanted the old man alive for torturing later, and who does yucky things to people who disobey him.
That’s the thing with chaos – things go too far and next thing you know seven people are dead and you’re being charged by the Department of Justice and you are looking at jail time with a minimum sentence you yourself supported for BLM protesters and now suddenly are waking up to the fact you are not getting a pardon from the man you did all of this for; he’s dodging accountability by saying he didn’t incite your riot even as you are asking him for a pardon for the riot you were arrested for participating in, at his invitation.
In this latest adaptation of The Stand, King rewrote the ending. In the book, there is a straight up case made for Randall Flagg, demon, seized by an otherworldly power; with his evaporation comes an accidental nuclear explosion, wiping out all the bad guys, plus the three good guys that were still awaiting their executions. In the movie the nuke goes off too, but not before some of Flagg’s fans start turning against him, angered by the murder of Glen Bateman. They regret their turn to the dark side, and decide to decamp.
And in a fascinating parallel to real life, the horned Jacob Chansley said he has re-evaluated his life since being jailed for over a month on charges stemming from the January 6 riot and realizes he shouldn’t have entered the Capitol building. Chansley, who previously said Trump inspired him to be in Washington that day, said Trump “let a lot of peaceful people down.” Real estate agent Jenna Ryan, also arrested (she posted a video to social media calling it the greatest day of her life) complains “I’m facing a prison sentence. Not one patriot is standing up for me. I was down there based on what my president said: ‘Stop the steal.’ Now I see that it was all over nothing.”
Dancing While Rome Burns
The parallel that made me sit up and take notice was the dancing.
In the new TV adaptation of The Stand, Randall Flagg does a little victory dance before he orders the torture of two captured good guys. He is seemingly unaware he is dangerously close to losing his power, though we, the audience, can see that some of his followers are turning against him. This episode was written a year before Trump, himself, could be seen dancing at his rallies, in a way too similar to the Walkin’ Dude not to notice. What does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe – probably – nothing. But as Joan Didion says, we tell ourselves stories in order to survive, and these images of reality mirroring a piece of post apocalyptic fiction have haunted me, demanding a story. The one that occurs is from Stephen King, of course – in the same book, the Stand, one of the characters muses on the nature of evil in a way that seems to fit this coincidence: how evil is like a neon sign, bright and flashy and attention-getting – impossible to ignore, even – but really just repeating the same simple pattern over and over. In other words, predictable. Something you can see through, once you really start looking.
Making a Stand
In the book – and the movie – Mother Abigail sends four Boulder Free Zone committee members west to Vegas, to confront Flagg. There is no plan to kill him – they take no weapons, or even food. “There you will make your stand,” she tells them. Back in real life, on January 6th, Donald Trump urged his followers to head to Congress, and while he didn’t say “There you will make your stand,” he said something quite similar, urging them to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and confront (i.e. make a stand against) Congress.
One aspect of the ending is the same for the book as in the movie: the good guys, concentrated in Boulder, go on with their lives, and two of the characters, Stu and Frannie, leave the community to travel back east and the familiar vistas of home. But it’s not exactly an optimistic ending. Frannie turns to Stu and asks him, “Do people ever learn?” And Stu, after living through the death of 99% of the world and playing a key part in defeating the baddest dude on the planet, can only say, “I don’t know.” Again, the unintended parallel to our reality today can’t be missed.
A hundred years ago, the world went through a pandemic, then a series of financial crises crowned by a Great Depression. In the rise of the National Socialist Party (Nazis) of the 1930s and the rise of the alt right in the 2020s, financial crises figure prominently. In the early 1930s Germany was in a full fledged depression complete with bank runs, bank holidays, and record unemployment. In the Trump insurrection, participants were more than twice as likely as the general population to be facing tax liens, bankruptcy and/or unemployment. A clear link between financial shock and political catastrophe has now been documented by researchers – it is a fact that radicalization flowers in times of economic precariousness, and the fact that radicalization is flowering now – its fruits borne not just on January 6th but also on March 16th (Georgia mass murders) and March 22nd (Colorado mass murders), tells us the answer to Frannie’s question. It’s not that people can’t learn, or won’t, it’s that they don’t have the resources to prioritize learning. They’re barely making it, and when you are barely making it, it’s easy to like the way a popular leader makes you feel, and find scapegoating to be easier than changing your difficult reality. It doesn’t excuse going to the dark side, of course – even King knew that, writing the new ending with now-repentant sinners against society regretting their embrace of a monster, he gave them redemption of a sort – coming to their senses and taking the first step away from evil – but they still came to a bad end in a literal doomsday fire.
I didn’t love the ending of the book or the movie, to be honest – it felt a little deus ex machina to me – but I do like the choice of fire, because for all its finality, it is also a symbol of cleansing and rebirth. Maybe this time around, as we emerge from a pandemic and an economic crisis, we will actually learn something.
But I doubt it.
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