“The Stand” by Stephen King

(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?

(~1200 words)


1. A contrived event that saves a hopeless situation in a novel or play.

Why is being fat bad?

JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) has won me over.

I use to mistrust her. I thought that Harry Potter was a stolen idea. There was enough evidence (for me) that the name, the characters, the setting, and the plot were stolen. And that way of doing business or art always bothers me.

But then I read the following by Rowling. And now I love her.

“It started in the car on the way to Leavesden film studios. I whiled away part of the journey reading a magazine that featured several glossy photographs of a very young woman who is either seriously ill or suffering from an eating disorder (which is, of course, the same thing); anyway, there is no other explanation for the shape of her body. She can talk about eating absolutely loads, being terribly busy and having the world’s fastest metabolism until her tongue drops off (hooray! Another couple of ounces gone!), but her concave stomach, protruding ribs and stick-like arms tell a different story. This girl needs help, but, the world being what it is, they’re sticking her on magazine covers instead. All this passed through my mind as I read the interview, then I threw the horrible thing aside.

But blow me down if the subject of girls and thinness didn’t crop up shortly after I got out of the car. I was talking to one of the actors and, somehow or other, we got onto the subject of a girl he knows (not any of the Potter actresses – somebody from his life beyond the films) who had been dubbed ‘fat’ by certain charming classmates. (Could they possibly be jealous that she knows the boy in question? Surely not!)

‘But,’ said the actor, in honest perplexity, ‘she is really not fat.’

‘”Fat” is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her,’ I said; I could remember it happening when I was at school, and witnessing it among the teenagers I used to teach. Nevertheless, I could see that to him, a well-adjusted male, it was utterly bizarre behaviour, like yelling ‘thicko!’ at Stephen Hawking.

His bemusement at this everyday feature of female existence reminded me how strange and sick the ‘fat’ insult is. I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain…

JK Rowling signing a book

I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’

‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’

What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!

So the issue of size and women was (ha, ha) weighing on my mind as I flew home to Edinburgh the next day. Once up in the air, I opened a newspaper and my eyes fell, immediately, on an article about the pop star Pink.

Her latest single, ‘Stupid Girls’, is the antidote-anthem for everything I had been thinking about women and thinness. ‘Stupid Girls’ satirises the talking toothpicks held up to girls as role models: those celebrities whose greatest achievement is un-chipped nail polish, whose only aspiration seems to be getting photographed in a different outfit nine times a day, whose only function in the world appears to be supporting the trade in overpriced handbags and rat-sized dogs.

Maybe all this seems funny, or trivial, but it’s really not. It’s about what girls want to be, what they’re told they should be, and how they feel about who they are. I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’. And frankly, I’d rather they didn’t give a gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence whether the woman standing next to them has fleshier knees than they do. Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons. Let them never be Stupid Girls. Rant over.”

– JK Rowling

If you are ready for the deep end of “girlness”, here is some Eve Ensler. And here is a terrifying article about the increasing “sexualization” of the world. And how that affects teen girls.