Photo from amazon.com.
Stephen King’s The Stand is an expansive work. In character, plot and theme, King’s novel asks very big questions about the nature of good and evil, how people relate to one another, how societies rise and fall and how meaning is found in life. The Stand is characterized as a “horror” novel and King himself is often brushed off as a writer of terrible tales and schlock literature. Perhaps, at points in his career, this has been true. When King was cranking out a novel each October, the quality was not always wonderful. I suspect King would admit this himself.
But, in recent years, as King has allowed himself to publish when he’s ready, not when the publisher is, the work has been outstanding. One of my favorite novels of the last decade is his 11/22/63. You can read my review HERE. And, though it’s a great book, excerpts from it are probably are not going to appear in any anthologies in the future. It’s a good read. Not a literary one.
The Stand is literary. Excerpts from The Stand certainly will be anthologized. The book is that good.
Anyone who dismisses The Stand simply as horror or a thriller is utterly missing the point.
I understand King took years to compose this novel. I have heard he started it and abandoned it multiple times. I know he intended it to be a great statement of himself as an author.
The Stand is the best of his work and it proves him a wonderful author of American novels. At his best, he’s up there with his contemporaries: John Irving, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison and Phillip Roth.
The Stand is King at his very, very best.
Ambitious and sprawling, The Stand rises above every single convention it embraces.
Is it horror? There are certainly elements of horror from gruesome violence described in graphic detail to impossible magic done at impossible times to malevolent forces ranging across the country.
Is it a thriller? King creates amazing set pieces – creative and compelling – that keep the reader excited and engaged. One’s heart does, indeed, race at certain points during the narrative. It’s powerful stuff King is packing, powerful and thrilling.
Is it post-apocalyptic? With the entire country (and the entire world?) ravaged by an Army-created plague and population reduced by over 99%, it is very much a story of the end of the world.
But The Stand is so much more than these parts.
Though the plot actually takes just over three months to run its course, the breadth of the book feels much longer. King introduces character-after-character who capture and hold a reader’s attention completely. Interwoven in the plot, each character has enough “screen time” to make an impression and to add to the complex narrative that The Stand is. Literally,there are over a hundred characters in the book, ranging from major to minor, each of whom is utilized by King to advance the central theme of the novel: There is good. There is evil. People have a choice of which to follow.
Following a plague of “Super Flu,” American society begins to reform in Boulder, Colorado and in Las Vegas, Nevada. Care to guess which city is the locus of Evil and which is the locus of Good? The survivors of the plague are draw by their dreams either to Mother Abigail in Boulder or Randal Flagg (“The Dark Man” or “The Walkin’ Dude”). In Vegas, there is law and order and electricity all directed by an iron fist. In Boulder, there is a community trying to give its citizenry a voice. Clumsily. Inevitably, the two will clash, one looking to overcome the other.
It is in this conflict that King underscores the themes of the book for Randal Flagg’s minions are very clear about what they will do. Evil exists to wipe out Good. In Boulder, Mother Abigail’s followers are much less sure of their approach. Should they hope for the best? Should they confront Flagg? Should they send spies or emissaries? Should they leave well enough alone.
Evil knows its course whereas Good seems unable to find its path until it engages in a series of moral compromises that leaves it wondering if it’s any better than the evil it opposes.
It’s a thought-provoking conundrum that King brings to life against the backdrop of a modern-day re-telling of the Book of Revelations. The central trick of the novel is that King populates both cities with every-person characters with whom the reader can identify and for whom the reader can feel sympathy. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. Their motivations are the framework around which King constructs the novel.
I read the abridged edition over 20 year ago and returned to the story two months back, unabridged version on tap. I don’t remember enough of the first published version of the work to compare the two, but I can say that the expanded edition seemed rich and full and did not drag at all. Each scene and each character felt a necessary edition to the plot. It’s long, but I love long books. I love to spend time with intriguing characters and get invested in them.
The Stand asks for an investment. The pay off is worth it.
If you’ve avoided Stephen King but have wondered what all the fuss is about, give The Stand a try. Select either the abridged or the unabridged version. You won’t be disappointed.
And, sometime soon, a review of It is in order!
The Stand receives FIVE BOULDER SUNRISES out of a possible five.