Last month, I covered a mob scene from early on in Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, The Stand. Today I would like to return to that novel, which climaxes with a very interesting variation on a mob scene.
Late in chapter 73, Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner are delivered to the front lawn of the MGM Grand, where they face a gruesome execution (being torn limb from limb by a rigged apparatus). Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas minions have all gathered for the impending bloodletting:
They spread out across the lawn in a rough circle. They were standing in the casino parking lot, on the steps leading up to the lobby doors, in the turnaround drive where incoming guests had once parked while the doorman whistled up a bellhop. They spilled out into the street itself. Some of the younger men had hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders for a better look at the upcoming festivities. The low murmuring was the sound of the crowd-animal. (1077)
Such set-up has the making for a quintessential mob scene, but the demeanor of the crowd-animal proves surprisingly subdued: “Larry ran his eyes over them, and every eye he met turned away. Every face seemed pallid, distant, marked for death and seeming to know it.” Scattered catcalls and a small cheer when Larry spits on the chains presented to him give him a momentary hope that the crowd might rise up against Flagg, “[b]ut his heart didn’t believe it. Their faces were too pale, too secretive. The defiance from the back was meaningless. […] There was doubt here–he could feel it–and disaffection. But Flagg colored even that. These people would steal away in the dead of night for some of the great empty spaces that the world had become” (1078). For Flagg, these violent public spectacles are less an administration of justice than an exercise in crowd control; he keeps his people in line by keeping them cowed by fear. Even as things start to fall apart in Las Vegas here at novel’s end, Flagg’s terror still creates restraint. When Larry shouts a warning to the crowd that next time it might be their turn to die this way, he can’t quite bring the crowd’s energy to critical mass: “That low murmur again, rising and angry…and the silence” (1079).
Whitney Horgan, one of Flagg’s own underlings, picks up the cause for Larry, decrying the barbarity of the ritual. But Whitney, too, fails to stoke a response: “Dead silence from the crowd. They might all have been turned to gravestones” (1081). When Whitney is dragged forward by Flagg’s black magic (“His sprung and mushy black loafers whispered through the grass and he moved toward the dark man like a ghost”), the witnesses to this evil marvel remain mute: “The crowd had become a slack jaw and a staring eye.” Flagg’s graphic destruction of Whitney with a “blue ball of fire” similarly elicits only quiet amazement: “The crowd released a long, sibilant sound: Aaaahhhh. It was the sound people had made on the Fourth of July when the fireworks display had been particularly good” (1082). Rather than a rabbleroused mob, Flagg’s people have been left utterly agog.
All this, though, is King’s means of setting the stage for a stunning reversal. Suddenly, the crowd does in fact turn unruly: “There was a scream, high, clear, and freezing. Someone broke and ran. Then someone else. And then the crowd, already on an emotional hairtrigger, broke and stampeded” (1083). All hell breaks loose upon the last-minute arrival of the irradiated, warhead-lugging Trashcan Man: “He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself” (1084). Dread of nuclear annihilation detonates crowd chaos: “They ran, scattering to all points of the compass, pounding across the lawn of the MGM Grand, across the street, toward the Strip. They had seen the final guest, arrived at last like some grim vision out of a horror tale. They had seen, perhaps, the raddled face of some final awful retribution” (1083). Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is thus reenacted on a grand scale.
Curiously, Mick Garris’s 1994 miniseries adaptation presents an exact reversal of King’s mob scene. When Larry and Ralph arrive, the crowd is a vibrant throng, barely controllable in its bloodthirstiness. These Las Vegans push and chant and brandish their guns; they cheer Flagg like a rock star when he takes the stage. Then, when Trashcan Man crashes this Times-Square-type party, the crowd just stands immobile, rooted in predominantly mute place.
The climax of King’s horror epic has always been somewhat problematical. The “Hand of God” (1084) that triggers the warhead is too much of a “deus ex machina” plot-resolver (and also appears lame when visualized by the ostensible special fx of the miniseries). But hearkening to the deliberate beats here–as King continually diffuses a mob scene and then allows it to explode at last–does make the ending of The Stand much more appreciable.
King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1990.