I’m not a huge Stephen King enthusiast; I don’t care much for the horror genre. But to be fair, I haven’t actually read much of his catalogue. In fact, before re-reading The Stand I hadn’t picked up one of his books since I was a kid. I’ve read Misery, Cycle of the Werewolf, Eyes of the Dragon, the short story compilation Four Past Midnight and perhaps one or two others. In my admittedly myopic view of King’s work, I think his talent lies in creating characters and seeing how they react in extreme situations. That’s what keeps me turning the pages.
I didn’t remember much of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition though I did read it when I was 14 or 15 and also saw the miniseries. (I even have it on DVD.) But since it is such a huge influence on Lost and I am a crazy Lost fan and this is the final season, I thought I would give it another go.
Wow. This is one of my favorite books of all time.
This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death. And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides-or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abagail and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.
Book I. “Captain Trips” — It starts with a sneeze here and a cough there and within weeks, nearly everyone is dead. As the world is dying, chaos reigns. The military attempts to maintain order but even those in charge are unable to control themselves. People scramble to flee cities and die from the flu, creating massive traffic jams and pile ups. The reader is introduced to various characters, most of which we follow on their journeys toward the end. Each watches in terror as everyone dies around them and they are bewildered as to why they don’t become sick themselves. When all the world seems dead they have strange dreams and venture out to seek out the truth of them.
We follow several different characters as they trek across the country, most using motorcycles because it’s the most efficient way to travel as it allows them to circumvent all the backed up traffic. They find other survivors along the way. And sometimes, that’s not always such a good thing. The epidemic leaves more tragedy in its place. There are brutal people out there. Guns and other weapons are just waiting to be picked up, as is the food on all of the grocery shelves and clothes in a department store, drugs in the pharmacies. Anything you want, it’s yours. The world as it once was is gone.
There is a chapter in this section that succeeded more than any other in painting Stephen King‘s new world view, one that illustrated what becomes of the people as the world they know disintegrates and to those who are left behind. It’s a chapter without any of the main characters. It’s a chapter that in concise and heart-wrenching vignettes shows us little peeks across the country. Of suicides. Of accidental drug overdoses. Of lost and alone children who die because there is no one to take care of them, like a 5-year old boy who strolls along picking and eating berries until stumbles into a deep well and remains there, helpless with a broken legs until he dies because there is no one to rescue him. It’s these tiny stories–some a few paragraphs, other a single sentence–that effectively show the scope of this story, of how far-reaching and impacting it truly is. In other words, it shows us a world outside of the characters we have so far come to know.
Book II. “On the Border” — The most lengthy of the sections, finds the survivors coming together in small packs as they venture across the country. Generally the story follows the “good” guys, though we do at times meet up with those aligned with the dark man. Along the way, there is camaraderie and fear, mistrust and genuine affections. Eventually they arrive at their destinations. One of the characters, Glen Bateman, was a sociology professor and through him we are familiarized with the concepts and theories he has about societies and how they are formed. His ideas are interesting and often correct as well.
It’s here we follow what is happening in what the survivors have dubbed the Boulder Free Zone. They clean the community of dead, return the electricity, move into homes and create new lives and relationships, where the new government forms. Some become complacent; this reality is better than thinking about Randall Flagg who they know rests just over the Rocky Mountains. Others, the new government (which is really just a committee at this point,) is constructing a plan about how to handle the dark man. It’s in the back of everyone’s mind and they know something must be done to stop him.
Book III. “The Stand” — This section finds the story pushing toward the final confrontation. It takes place largely in Las Vegas where some of the “good” guys are heading to see Randall Flagg. To do what, they are not sure. The final battle is, to many readers, a disappointment as well as unsatisfying, but this epic story is not about this final “stand” so much as the journey toward it. And the way I see it, just how can you write a satifying climax? In a sense, Stephen King wrote himself into a bit of a corner. When everything leading up to the moment is so powerful and thoughtful and compelling, how could he top himself? So I can easily forgive this minor issue. It only lasts a few pages out of 1100 plus pages anyhow.
One of the profound successes of The Stand is in the characterization. Stephen King manages to create a compelling and believable cast. One of the difficulties in crafting a tale that basically comes down to good and evil is in making the characters identifiable. There’s two instances that impressed me where he nailed this task. One is in Harold Lauder, a teenage kid who was picked on relentlessly. He’s in love with Frannie Goldsmith who is not in love with him. She’s taken up with Stu Redman. He is also overlooked in being chosen to take part in the new government. He feels a deep sense of betrayal and an utter desire for revenge. He becomes seduced by the idea of aligning himself with the dark man. Yet through it all–despite his irrational behavior and failure to amend his outlook–you understand his rage because his inability to simply “let go” and start anew–his hubris, in other words–has been properly attended to in the writing. By being burdened by his past, despite the fact that his past is now irrelevant, Harold has doomed himself.
Trashcan Man is the other example. A schizophrenic pyromaniac, “Trash” has nothing but supreme devotion to the walking dude (aka the dark man, Randall Flagg.) Ostracized, abused and discarded his whole life, the walking dude accepts him, praises him, has a place for him. It’s a feeling he has never known. When he meets up with other folks in Las Vegas, they accept him too. It’s a happiness he didn’t know was out there for him. Because Stephen King has given proper weight to this character’s past and his struggles, his loyalty to side of evil is easily understood. In a sense, you can’t see Trash anywhere but here.
Many say that this novel is an examination of the struggle between good and evil, the war of all wars. But I don’t see it that way at all really. It’s allegory, something I am learning Stephen King seems to like a lot. The Stand is a powerful narrative, a very rich and poignant story with a deliberate profundity peppered with both nuance and flair. It’s about the human condition, the psyche of individuals and the pathos of a society when the world has fallen away. And how fitting. I suppose you only know who really are when you are put under such fear and stress. That’s the real you. It will bleed out whether you want it to or not. And The Stand is an examination of that more than it is of “good and evil.”
An 1100+ page book may seem a daunting read to some. And it certainly could be. But if the story and the characters are riveting and complex, page count doesn’t mean a thing. This is an incredible novel and I would recommend it to anyone.