CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.
I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!
In the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.
“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”
This is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.
“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”
King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.
” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”
But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.
With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.
Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)
But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.
“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”
I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.
But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.
Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!
“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.
Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!
What’s the longest book you’ve read?
The Literary Elephant