Back in 1978 Stephen King was an author with a couple of bestsellers under his belt and things were seemingly getting bigger with each book. So for his fifth act, he chose to wrote about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. That didn’t pan out, so after a while he switched gears and started writing The Stand.
Things got bigger alright, with the original manuscript clocking in at 1200 pages. The publishers requested that a third should be culled, and so it was. Until 1990, when the full uncut (and slightly updated) version saw the light of day.
The Stand is a good vs. evil epic against an apocalyptic background, with America and the world succumbing to a deadly man-made virus nicknamed Captain Trips. However, some people are immune, and begin having strange dreams, either of a black woman or a dark man (they are of no relation to each other). Following their dreams, the survivors traverse the ravaged landscape and make their way to Mother Abagail the ancient black woman and establish a Christian colony of survivors called the Free Zone in Boulder, Colorado. Meanwhile the dark man, Randall Flagg, establishes another colony of survivors in Las Vegas following another set of values. Inevitably confrontations ensue between the two factions. It’s a simple story but it takes a whole lot of pages to tell it.
The length is initially a strength, with King languidly introducing the main players, beginning with Stu from East Texas, who is there at the beginning when the virus hits and is the white hat of the story. Larry the musician has a hit song just as the apocalypse hits, while Nick the deaf-mute drifter gives the looming apocalypse an extra dimension due to his inability to hear or speak. Nick eventually pairs up with Tom the mentally handicapped man who cannot read (oh the irony) and for whom everything spells M-O-O-N. Fran the pregnant girl is the only survivor of her town in addition to Harold the fat kid, who has an unrequited crush on her. Lloyd the convict gets a job as Randall Flagg’s lieutenant and Nadine becomes Flagg’s secret bride. And so on, the first half of the novel recounts their lives before and immediately after the end of the world as they knew it, and how they eventually find their places in the new world. King takes his time to set his pieces on the board, pays minute attention to some of them, giving them small adventures that do not really progress the plot, but contribute to its solid foundation. The first half is all about a build-up to something epic.
Unfortunately, that’s where The Stand collapses. The second half of The Stand is dull as dishwater. It doesn’t help that most of it consists of meetings and other bureaucratic endeavours of the new settlement. If something breaks the tedium, it happens suddenly and without reason, like a bomb that suddenly goes off. King has gone on record that the bomb was a way to get the characters moving again, but similar things happen again and again in the second half, culminating in the detonation of a nuclear bomb by the infamous hand of god. It’s as if King literally lost the plot in the second half and made something up on the fly, slouching towards the end because he’d made it that far, there was a book to deliver and that Patty Hearst idea wasn’t going to resurrect itself.
There are problems with some of the characters as well. Stu as the leading man is another Ben Mears of ‘Salem’s Lot fame, a bland white male hero, annoying to a fault because there is barely anything there. Fran the pregnant girl is the leading lady, who comes off as a grounded figure in the beginning but then degenerates into a shrill new mother archetype. These two milquetoast characters are going to be the Adam and Eve of the new world? Please. Mother Abagail the ancient magical black woman is problematic to say the least, and that’s all I’m going to say about her. Glen the professor has Kojak the smart dog and Ralph the man with the pick-up has a pick-up. Some of the characters, however, do grow up in the course of the novel, most importantly the cowardly Larry who does become something of a righteous man, as per the lyrics of his song. The tragedy of Harold the incel is also noteworthy. He tries to become a better man and even does, but is eventually undone by his inability to let go of the mocking rejection by Fran. And Randall Flagg as the cool, calculating counterpart to the goody-good God-worshipping Mother Abagail lights up every scene he’s in.
However, the biggest character in The Stand is God. He’s pushing Mother Abagail to make a stand, he’s assembling the heroes, and it’s literally his hand that ends the book. The world after the superflu is divided into two camps of good and evil, black and white, with no shades in between. There are no gray areas in The Stand, no characters that would just go thanks but no thanks, we’re good, when nutcases come calling them to join their silly quests. Whatever sense of realism King’s prose had accumulated in his career by this point goes out the window and is replaced by simplistic superstitions. And it’s all the more painful because there’s nothing original or inventive in these choices. Going biblical may help make your book more epic just because the Bible is the original epic, but it feels lazy and uninspired.
The uncut version of 1990 returns the previously cut third back into the fold, and also updates some of the dates and pop culture references to account for the 12 year gap. While the longer version gives the novel more breathing room, the changes are surprisingly minute. Anything that didn’t work in the original edition still doesn’t work. It’s just more. King’s notoriety as the writer of long books was probably spawned here, even if his following books were quite condensed and effective and the bloat would only return much later. Of the previous books, The Stand perhaps best resembles ‘Salem’s Lot with its large cast, but whereas the vampire saga was set in a single town, The Stand spreads it out to all of North America. The contrast is even more striking in comparison to The Shining, which was confined into one hotel. A boundless sandbox isn’t perhaps the best match for King, or for horror in general.
There’s a lot of good in The Stand. All of the first half is excellent, with the characters journeying through the apocalypse seeking safety. The dying world is perfectly captured, with survivors of the superflu still facing many other deadly situations, not to mention mental problems. There are excellent small nuggets, such as the chapter where King rapidly goes through a series of quick snapshots of ordinary people suffering a variety of fates. But once the main cast arrive in Colorado and make their stand, it all stumbles into a standstill. One of the points of this re-read is to remind myself what the books were actually like, and everything in the first half was just as good as I remembered it from several decades ago. But I had no recollection of the second half at all, other than from the two TV miniseries, and getting through it felt like a boring chore, not an enjoyment. There’s no denying that The Stand is a classic story of an apocalypse, and some of it is great, but half of it isn’t.
This was book 6 in my Stephen King re-read. Next up: The Long Walk by Richard Bachman