It’s World Book Day today! In celebration, I’d like to take you back forty years ago. Stephen King released his first true epic: The Stand. I’ve only managed to read it twice, as the “The Complete And Uncut Edition” I have is 1162 pages! Yes, I’ve re-read King’s IT countless times and that’s about the same size as The Stand. But I came to The Stand a lot later in life than I did IT. IT has a certain nostalgia for me; The Stand has zero nostalgia. So I read it without bias, without a memory of a different time. I’ll approach it again this year, but as it stands, The Stand ranks as one of King’s best novels.
It’s King’s first foray into a post-apocalyptic narrative. 99% of the population of the US has been killed by a fatal flu, called Captain Trips in the book. We follow two different sets of people, both having visions of two different people: the “good” Mother Abigail, and the “evil” Randall Flagg (those readers of The Dark Tower series will know that name!). These two rival factions are destined to fight and decide the future of the human race…
I’ll be honest: I found it difficult to become invested in The Stand. The two sets of people seem so simple and one-dimensional in a way that you wouldn’t expect from King. Say what you want about King, but he’s great at creating believable and sympathetic characters. Here, he seems to struggle to imbue these characters with believability. Everything is black and white in simple dualistic terms. Not only that, but the narrative seemed familiar and derivative. How many post-apocalyptic stories have we seen? They involve the select survivors clashing, choosing morality or Darwinistic survival of the fittest, and a lot of wandering about without any specific purpose.
“Your first impulse is to share good news, your second is to club someone with it.”
However, King soon dragged me into the story. He started to flesh out the characters, adding nuance and depth to them. The good guys didn’t seem so good, and the bad guys were given understandable (and, in some cases, sympathetic) motivations. He’s described The Stand as a war to write, and there’s a subtle shift where it seems King is winning the battle. The novel becomes the King style we know (and love?). My initial difficulty was separating the minor (and some) major characters from each other, but they grew into relatable people. The length of the novel works in its favour. The majority of the novel includes our characters in dialogue with each other or internal dialogue, and this pulls us in. They may not propel the plot, but they let us get to know the characters.
The main drive of the narrative, in my opinion, is the conflict between fate and autonomy. How free are our characters? Flagg and Mother Abigail are the nominal leaders, telling their followers what to do. Are the regular characters reacting their individuals ways because of mere instinct, or something more…elemental? To see the characters thrust into difficult situations/moral dilemmas is part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction, and King zones in on these situations to make us squirm and think. What would we do? Would we let ourselves be guided by a “leader” or follow our own instinct/reason? Does reason count in a world that has moved beyond rationality? Do morals count in a world that’s not bound by morality?
“It’s hard enough for a person to keep their own socks pulled up, let alone someone else’s.”
Sure enough, like most epic novels, The Stand doesn’t have to be the doorstep of the novel that King pumped out. I’ve never read the original version, so maybe that will provide a less-elongated experience. King has never been one to stop a chapter when it should have stopped five pages ago; and The Stand is the beginning of his unwillingness to edit his work. Wheels spin, characters talk without purpose, and descriptions carry on into absurdity.
But these flaws (and others) are easily forgivable. The Stand is easily one of King’s greatest achievements. It’s an epic that’s sometimes not sure where it’s going, or what it’s saying. It’s an epic that could have done with a little editing (bear in mind, I’ve only read the COMPLETE Edition). But The Stand remains a gripping piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. It remains a hefty but incredible entry into post-apocalyptic fiction. King, essentially, moves away from supernatural horror into natural horror. In a sense, he summarises the themes and morals of his earlier work into this gigantic beast of a book. And it’s one of his best.
VERDICT: 9/10. The Stand is in need of a little editing, but it still stands out as a major milestone in the landscape of post-apocalyptic fiction, and stands in the top tier of King’s works. A gripping, enthralling tale of what happens when humanity’s main priority is survival.
Click here for my review of Stephen King’s IT