Stephen King fans regard The Stand as his greatest novel. After finally completed the 1153 pages (of the Expanded Edition), I can see why they think so, even if I don’t agree with them. Certainly everything that makes Stephen King such a powerful and interesting writer is in place here—the propulsive narrative that drives you to keep turning the pages, the compelling character relationships, the chilling elements of the supernatural and horror – but, to me, the book is just a hot mess. A fascinating mess, but a mess nonetheless.
King kicks it off by tracking a plague—dubbed Captain Trips—as it narrowly escapes from a Top Secret military facility to infect the rest of the world. The way that King coldly details the spread of the disease, the effect it has on people, and the devastation that results is chillingly powerful. This is the spookiest part of the book – as when Stu, trapped in a CDC containment center, wanders through halls of dead and dying victims while searching for the exit.
After people have (mostly) stopped dying and the .04% of humanity that are immune to the plague take stock of what’s happened, they all start dreaming one of two dreams: of Randall Flagg, a “dark man” setting up camp in Las Vegas, or of Mother Abigail, a Christ-like 104 year old woman. Survivors are drawn towards one side or another depending on their nature, with King setting up a confrontation between them. He obviously wants to explore religious ideas, and what he calls “rising above adversity through faith” so, to this end, and despite his well-deserved reputation for wallowing in the darkness, King spends a long time with the “good” folks who congregate in Boulder, CO to re-establish society. This attempted rebirth of America is interesting, and SK is typically at his best when describing the interconnections between people in close knit environments, but the book’s pace falters as King includes too much sociology and politics while neglects Flagg’s group. The rest of the novel repeats this pattern: lots of interesting stretches that ultimately don’t really serve an important point in the big good vs. evil showdown – the Stand – that concludes the book.
In short, I liked The Stand, but I feel that King could have cut out a lot of material and ended up with a taught thriller in line with the gripping first third of the book. Many, many people have fallen in love with The Stand, but although I liked it, call me a simple acquaintance.
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