All of us in Liquorature are Stephen King fans, so perhaps it’s a bit surprising how long it’s been before someone chose one of his novels. Given the breadth of his work and how well known it is, I would have preferred something more obscure and “harder” from his earlier writing period, but the uncut version of The Stand is probably as good a book as any to go with.
The Stand is at its core a novel about Good and Evil. How Evil can triumph unless Good stands up to it, and how it always costs more than one expects. How God perhaps does nothing unless he absolutely has to. How a desire for law and order can lead to the blackest of crimes (a theme also seen much more clearly in Under The Dome). And from this bedrock come other strands of storytelling: apocalypse, the reconstruction of society, the maturation of characters under the pressure of need, love, hate, life, death and everything in between. It’s quite an achievement.
I seriously doubt I need to discuss the plot at length, since it so well known, so I’ll be brief. An engineered strain of the flu gets out of the lab, mutates, spreads and kills perhaps 99.99% of the population of America (I guess the world, but nowhere is this explicit, merely implied). The first third of the book describes this, introduces all the main characters, and directs them via dreams to two places in the US depending on their predisposition for good or bad – Mother Abigail’s farm in Nebraska and then Colorado; and Las Vegas, which stands in for the capital of sin, or Mordor or some such. The second third describes the efforts of the survivors to set up a functioning society. And the third part chronicles the trek of a chosen band to confront and possibly destroy the Dark Man.
Sounds rather sterile this way, doesn’t it? A thousand page tome in four sentences. The destination and “happy ending” (such as it is) of The Stand is hardly the point in a novel this size – it’s the journey that matters, and it’s here that most readers find their enjoyment. Consider how much time is devoted to the various characters, how clear they are in our minds, how even minor characters are sharply drawn: The Walkin’ Dude, Stu Redman, Harold Lauder, Fran and her parents, the Trashcan Man, Julie Lawry, the Kid (friggin’ awesome baddie, this one), Barry Dorgan, Tom Cullen, Nick Andros, Joe and the many others. Even the mutt gets a fair shake. And King is brilliant in his description of desolation, of the sudden quiet and loneliness of the dead world these people inherit, the relics of their civilization strewn around the landscape wherever they look.
King had written the core opening concept of The Stand in embryonic form as far back as 1969 when he published a short story called Night Surf (it was later a part of his collection Night Shift) about survivors of a global pandemic. The original novel – cut at the behest of his publishers – came out in 1978, and this was the version I first read in 1981 when on a trip to Brazil. It was re-released in 1990 to include the previously excised material, and updates for certain cultural references (incompletely so). It has aged well and still holds up excellently on a reread; some consider it Stephen King’s finest work, though it must be said right here that it is not the author’s own favourite novel – that honour belongs to The Dead Zone.
But it is an opus of sorts, and aside from the sheer pleasure of reading a novel that takes this long to get through (I have a few bucks riding on whether Mr. A-is-A finishes it) comes from the leisurely pace it establishes whereby all the various coiling strands of plot move around and draw closer and then apart. We identify with the persons described, enjoy the thumbnail sketches, watch the gradual unfolding of plot and event. King is a detailed writer – some say too much so – and you get real meat on the bones, vivid descriptions, strong characterizations, realistic motifs and themes. It’s like a supermarket, there’s something for everyone between the covers of this ‘un.
And for those of us who have read most of King’s novels and short stories, there’s always the delight of finding unexpected concordances and references. The Walkin’ Dude, the personification of evil whose initials are RF, is found in Eyes of the Dragon and in the Dark Tower series, where for a brief period the characters even enter into plague-struck Kansas. When Stu and Tom are on their way back home, they pass the Plymouth Fury from Christine. Radio signals from Arnette, Texas, Stu’s hometown, are referenced in The Tommyknockers. The “Shop” and Castle Rock make brief mention…and so on.
Some consider King’s finest work behind him. Other suggest his true magnum opus is the Dark Tower series. Still others give pride of place to novels as widely separated as The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, Under the Dome, Bag of Bones, IT or Hearts in Atlantis. I don’t belong to any of these camps, since I like most of what he has written (not all), and have read this one many times. Tolkien remarked in his introduction to The Lord of the Rings that it was not his intention to make his tale into an allegory or have some kind of hidden meaning, but simply to try his hand at a really long story. In both Danse Macabre and On Writing, King intimates much the same, and as a part time writer myself, I understand the attraction and siren call of such a desire all too well. In this dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy and horror novel, I’d suggest that Stephen King has succeeded beyond his own expectations.