(I’ve always loved this cover… even though the event depicted never occurs in the book.)
I just finished reading The Stand by Stephen King (all 1,141 pages of the unabridged version). Here are my thoughts on it:
It is not a Hero’s Quest—not the story of a journey; not even an inner journey. So what is it?
As a survival story, it is okay. As an end-of-times, apocalyptic story, it is decent. As a philosophy of human nature and society, it is mediocre.
The story goes like this: a government-created superflu kills 99% of humanity. Those that are somehow immune (which is never explained and no character attempts to understand it) have to survive. All dogs and horses also die. Except for one dog (and a puppy they find six months in). No one can, or even tries, to explain that. Wolf and deer populations grow dramatically in the one year that the story covers.
But wait! There is a devil. And an angel. The devil is a man who can levitate a couple of inches and who has an unsettling grin. He can also see through the eyes of most animals and, thereby, keeps tabs on people. He also walks a lot. The angel is a 106-year-old woman who hears from God. She doesn’t walk much at all.
Of the 200 million people who used to populate America, about 10,000 are accounted for after the plague. A couple of those people have inherently weak character. A couple of them are literally retarded. The rest of them are inherently good.
The guy who is kind of a devil, terrifies everyone like they’ve never been frightened before. It is a deep, physical, paralyzing fear. In spite of that, about half of the survivors are mysteriously drawn to Las Vegas where the devil-guy has set up his kingdom. Once they get there, everyone continues to be terrified of the guy. Especially when he grins.
The other half of the people are mysteriously drawn to Boulder, Colorado where the super-old lady has set up her kingdom. Except she doesn’t want a kingdom and immediately leaves to avoid pride and such.
The people in Vegas quickly get power back on, and then move to flying planes and equipping the planes with weapons. The people in Boulder have a lot of meetings and elect officers and bury dead bodies and try to get the water-powered generators working. I did not know that Boulder had water-powered generators. Oh well.
The beginning of the book, when the superflu was killing everyone, and the survivors were running everywhere was kind of interesting. Though I kept wondering why anyone, much less everyone, was traveling anywhere. Why not stay in the town you know and stockpile supplies and clean up the town, etc? Oh well.
The next part of the book, where the people in Boulder try to re-create an orderly society, was super boring. At the beginning of the book and at the end, the book covers a lot of time quickly. But when the small band of people are holding meetings, the amount of detail is surprising. And excruciating.
Speaking of detail, I was surprised at the amount of detail given about each character’s back story. Each character essentially got their own biography. And there were a lot of characters. The book reads like a dozen biographies with a little action that connects them all. Maybe that was the point of the book: a character study of a dozen-or-so types of people. I don’t know.
The end of the book is “the stand”. Although no stand or showdown actually occurs. The devil guy wants to destroy the people in Boulder (though it is not clear why, and he doesn’t have a very clear plan). But before he can take any action, he and all his followers (every last one of them) are destroyed by a deus ex machina1.
The message, if you try to look for it, seems to be that evil exists only in one bad spirit (who can take human form), and that humans are only corrupted due to, and within, a society. This is the same philosophy that Jean Jacques Rousseau espoused 200 years ago. It was popular at the time (Hey! I’m not responsible for my bad behavior! You are!) but quickly collapsed in the face of study, analysis, and reasoning.
None of the “bad” people who are drawn to Las Vegas are truly bad. Some are dumb, some are manipulated or tricked, the rest are good but fearful. They only do sorta bad things because the devil-guy makes them.
All of the people who are drawn to Boulder are good. One or two cause minor trouble, but they are alcoholics and therefore not bad nor accountable for their actions that cause trouble.
The commentary on human nature and society almost gets interesting several times, but each time timidly reverts to: Devil vs God.
The topic most thoroughly explored is religion. And King makes strong, thought-provoking points on both sides of religion.
But the story is an awkward balance of chance and fate. There are a number of deus ex machinas, all of which are disappointing.
The writing is solid, journeyman writing—what we should expect of any writer who has finished a good number of books. Louis L’amour and Isaac Asimov come to mind.
There are a lot of similes. The vast, vast majority of descriptions are done through similes. (There are at least one per page.) I liked the similes because King writes very descriptive, creative, and often humorous similes. But I sometimes thought that King relied on simile too much (there are a lot of them!).
I also liked the little sayings the characters use to make their points. Each major character has their own collection of idioms and their own way of saying them. It is remarkable. These little sayings were so great in number and diversity, it sometimes seemed like King had listened to every conversation everyone has ever had, and then pulled the best little sayings from each conversation. He does that in all his books. Does he make up each character’s idioms? Does he constantly listen for such things and record them? Either way, it really is remarkable.
Some of the dialogue was “on the nose” and some of the points were disappointingly ham-fisted.
All-in-all, I was conflicted by the book. I know many people who say it is their favorite King book, or their favorite book ever. I made a lot of notes in the (tiny!) margins as I read, but in a percentage of them, I questioned the story and writing.
I am unsure of how to conclude this review about The Stand by Stephen King. Here goes: I was underwhelmed, even disappointed in it. But everyone else I know who has read it, has loved it. Perhaps you’ll want to decide for yourself?
1. A contrived event that saves a hopeless situation in a novel or play.