The Stand (1978/1990)
The Stand is often described - by critics and fans alike - as Stephen King's "best" novel. You will probably have noticed by now that I'm not grading or ranking these books as I go through them (and I don't intend to start now). This is for two main reasons: (a) I suspect that I would end up continually tinkering with my grades as I went on, and (b) I would prefer (where possible) to judge each book on its own merits, rather than in comparison with other work.* And so, on the one hand, I slightly object to this book's huge reputation on principle. However, balancing this out is the fact that I accidentally spent most of the last week reading The Stand rather than working or sleeping. It's a humdinger.
Before getting started, I should probably make clear for the record that my copy is the reissued "complete and uncut edition" from 1990, which means that all the dates have been changed to fit the revised timeframe of the story and a whole chunk of character background has been reinserted. This additional material accounts for around 400 manuscript pages, which were originally removed, as King writes in his preface, "at the behest of the accounting department" rather than for editorial reasons. The end result is a book of 1,423 pages - weighty even by King's standards.
Spoilers ahead! The novel begins with the accidental release of a plague - the superflu, aka Project Blue, aka Captain Trips, aka Tube Neck - from a secret military installation beneath the Mojave Desert. Charles Campion, a security guard, manages to escape before the bioweapons lab is fully sealed off, and flees across the US with his wife and child in a desperate attempt to outrun death. Instead, they take the plague with them, starting a chain reaction that leads to the end of the world as we know it.
King deftly combines sections following the spread of the plague with the personal stories of those who will become major players in what is to follow. We witness the links which allow the infection to spread and the military's attempts to quarantine and isolate those who are infected - both of which illustrate the repercussions of good and bad decisions under pressure, as well as the effects of chance interactions. One chapter relates the first (unrepressed) reports of the virus, as the media rebel against increasingly brutal cover-ups before being taken off the air with extreme prejudice. Within 200 pages, the reader is completely involved, and the novel is almost forcing you to read it. Widespread panic and grim glimpses into the lives of the infected and dying build up a bleak and shocking picture of a society in sudden collapse.
Against this chilling background, we gradually come to know the central characters, all of whom are (for reasons not fully understood by military science) immune to the superflu. King gives each of them personal tragedies to deal with, and we come to identify strongly with them as a result. Stuart Redman, the only survivor from his small Texas town, is isolated in the plague response centre at Stovington, sealed off while the rest of the world is dying; Larry Underwood, a musician visiting his mother in New York, is left to bleakly wander the streets of the big city, struggling with the responsibilities of being a survivor; pregnant Frannie Goldsmith buries her father in the garden as her Maine town dies around her; deaf-mute Nick Andros finds himself left in charge of dying prisoners in an Arkansas jail. King succesfully delineates his main characters, keeping them distinct from one another - which becomes more and more important as the cast gradually grows. There are some truly haunting moments on show here, Larry's flight out of New York through the corpse-filled Lincoln Tunnel being perhaps the best example.
We are also introduced to a number of other characters who are destined for darker things. Lloyd Henreid, effectively on death row for a tristate killing spree, is left to starve in his cell. A pyromaniac known as the Trashcan Man roams the deserted countryside, torching everything in his path. And Randall Flagg - the Walkin' Dude, the dark man - is making his way to Las Vegas.
Flagg is something of an enigma: is he the antichrist? He doesn't remember. He can send out his Eye (in one of several nods to The Lord of the Rings saga) to spy on others. He can control various "evil" animals - wolves, crows, etc. He can drive people mad with a look. And he can manipulate the weak into betrayal and murder. However, his past is something of a mystery - King hints that he has been involved in a number of well-known atrocities (the JFK assassination, the Manson murders), purely in positions of terrible influence. But the fact that Flagg is an unknown quantity even to himself makes his character that bit less predictable and more sinister. All of which means that King is able to build up the threat that Flagg represents to the survivors of the plague.
These fall into two categories: the good and the evil (although perhaps "the weak" would be more accurate). Both groups experience vivid dreams, some featuring an ancient, benevolent black woman (Mother Abigail) and others featuring Flagg. The survivors are drawn to one or the other, depending on their driving characteristics. The "good" survivors end up in Boulder, Colorado, trying to re-establish society; the "evil" survivors gather around Flagg in Las Vegas, and rapidly set to work on collecting weaponry for an assault on Boulder. And this is where the story begins to falter slightly.
In his depiction of the Boulder Free Zone, King relies on former sociology professor Glen Bateman to explain his concepts of basic societies. I began to feel that this character - while endearing in his own right - was being used a little too much to deliver weighty chunks of exposition and societal theory; much is made of the establishment of a committee to oversee the fledgling community, and this slows down the breakneck pace of the preceeding 800 pages. And society is always balanced against religion: Mother Abigail dismisses the committee as unimportant, her point being that whatever happens to them will be down to God and not their petty, earthly organisations. The battle lines between good and evil, right and wrong, God and the Devil - however you want to interpret it - are drawn, and not everyone is going to survive the final showdown (which involves a literal example of deus ex machina that is laughable on film but just about acceptable on the page, mostly because King handles it through allusion in a matter-of-fact way).
In a sense, the "stand" that is finally made is one of the intuitive against the rational. King illustrates, time and again, the stupidity of mankind - firstly in the release of and response to the superflu, and then in the way that the emergent societies develop. Flagg can be interpreted as a representation of the rational: he is the logic that results in mutually assured destruction, the belief in technology which ultimately blinds us to the effects of using said technology, the very mentality that allows for the existence of biological weapons. Mother Abigail, on the other hand, represents a more instinctive and compassionate way of life - whether you choose to take on board the religious message or not (and several of the main characters do not). However, it seems unfair to reduce this sprawling tome to a simple battle between opposing sides; there is much more to it than that implies. See, for example, the chapter in which King describes a second epidemic of "natural" deaths following the end of the plague - these are pointless, tragic, stupid and fitting by turn, taking in snake bite, drug overdose, falling down a well, getting locked in a freezer. They are the everyday accidents of life, to which we are prone now and would still be after a disaster of this magnitude. The randomness and coincidences of life prevail.
Right, time to wrap this up once and for all. Although I don't personally consider this to be Stephen King's "best" book, it is certainly an exciting and thrilling piece of writing. And while it could probably do with a little bit of pruning around the midsection, The Stand is a memorable, harrowing and compelling drama which effectively took over my life for a week (on the second reading) - you should take that as a recommendation.
Notes for the obsessive factfan: The Stand contains King's first reference to Castle Rock, a fictional town which features in many of his books to come. And, at one point, Mother Abigail refers to having "the shine".
* Prepare for me to ignore this lofty ideal completely in later posts, as and when I forget about trying to stick to it...
Next: The Long Walk.
Posted by Dan at 16:00