Of Musings and Wonderings

{March 6, 2013}   Book Review: The Stand – Stephen King

standI finished this book on Sunday, and since then I’ve already finished the All Together Dead (Sookie Stackhouse novels). Let’s face it, I needed something lighter after getting through this hefty volume. The version I read was the re-mastered version, with some parts left in that King had originally edited. Despite this, and despite the sheer weight of it, I still felt like it was lacking some things. Minor things, but I’ll come to them later.

The Stand is the story of the end of the world. When a plague destroys a vast amount of the population (it’s never clear just how many), people begin to travel. As they do whenever the world ends. There never really seems to be a reason for it (unless you have zombies on your tail and you’re in a city), but usually the impression is they’re looking for other survivors, or just escaping the memories. In The Stand, as the characters slowly drift away from their homes and the dead, they begin to experience strange dreams. Some show a mysterious old woman, who claims to be 108, while others show a man who soon becomes known as ‘The Dark Man’. The characters King focuses on seem to have a built in instinct for knowing which one is good, and which is evil.

It is by now a pretty standard set up. Disease is unleashed, follow select groups of survivors as they try to, well, survive. But this book was out way before the recent apocalyptic trend (1978 for the original, 1990 for the one I read). Not to say it is completely original, but it takes old ideas and weaves them into something that even now feels fresh. I have the feeling that King added a lot more than just his original manuscript when working on the 1990 version; without reading the original, which I will hopefully do one day, I can’t say for sure, but my gut feeling is that a lot of the references and even the slang of the characters was updated. Which makes sense – the book is set in 1990, so updating it to fit into that year makes it feel more realistic than some films and books written decades before they’re set.

The characters are engaging, and soon, even during the build-up to the main events of the book (starting with the plague), you become deeply invested in them. Knowing pretty much what’s about to hit, I found myself early on knowing which characters I was rooting for and wanted to see make it to the end (Stu and Larry at the top) and which I wanted to see die an early painful death (Nadine and Harold). The characters all offset each other, and clumped into various groups they work well together. That said, I felt like once certain characters got to Boulder, we missed a lot from the journeys of the others, even when they pick up other survivors.

I would have liked to have seen just a bit more of Stu’s group on the road near the end of the journey, and Larry’s group just before we actually do catch up with them. But the book (as I’ve pointed out) is already quite lengthy, so maybe it’s a good thing we only got sections of them.

At times, I was a bit put off by the sheer scale of it. It begins to build up into an all out war between the forces of good and evil; in this case, Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg, God vs the Devil. (Not embodied in those two characters, but rather…well, it’s hard to explain, really.) And yeah, it’s mostly build up, as people move towards one or the other.

One of the most interesting things I felt about the book was the use of direction. It follows the characters across America, and moves from one group to the other, though you get the strong sense that at some point, they’re going to cross paths. Direction is used to give a sense of the characters, to make you gauge their motivations and emotions purely through the way they feel about the way they’re going. As they move, there’s the very real feeling of these characters shedding old skins and moving on, of changing. The ones that don’t are the ones to be pitied, as they cling to old ideas of who they were or are, as they see the shadows of their past lurking in every corner. Harold and The Trashcan Man are, without a doubt, the greatest examples of these. The Trashcan Man is in a way mirrored in Tom Cullen; both are ‘slow’, to use one of the most mild terms in the book to describe them (in most places, I had to keep reminding myself it was written in a less, err, politically correct time) and the different ways they’re seen in the book play off each other.

Then you have Nick. Nick, one of the most fascinating characters in the whole book, the one you almost cling onto, even if he can’t speak. Even as a deaf-mute, he has a commanding presence whenever he’s on the page. The changes in characters like Larry, Nick and Tom are subtle, and it’s only via Larry that it’s explicitly stated. But there’s still the sense in all of them.

Some of the ideas in the book were drawn out really well; via Glen Bateman, King manages to explain the situation from a sociologist’s point of view. Bateman puts his predictions of what will happen next out there freely, and he acts as the logical mentor for the other characters involved, helping them see what they need to do.

Most books would focus only on the good characters and their struggles against their fear of The Dark Man, who pretty much feels like a forerunner to Voldemort. He lures the weak to him through his promises of a better life, gives them what they never had before the world ended with a hack and cough, and once his name becomes common knowledge, only the braver characters seem able to say it. Even his own followers stick to The Walkin’ Dude or other names they have for him. Actually, the more I think about it, the more similarities I can see between The Stand and Harry Potter. But maybe, again, it’s the scale of it, the good versus evil feel.

Anyway, going back to direction. King moves from one part of the States to the other, feeling like he’s leading you by the hand as he smoothly moves you from one set of characters to the other. And rather than jumping back and forth, the sections tend to stick to the same general area, the characters grouped not by alliances but by their location. And it works. It feels like you’re really moving, and it means it’s easy to build up a stronger idea of the characters.

Some of the ideas broached seem just a tad outdated, but others resonate. Bateman muses on how long it’ll be before people just pick up the guns that have been left laying around, how long before people return to the old ways that have destroyed them. People aren’t shown to be wholly good or wholly evil. Just because they’re in Mother Abigail’s camp doesn’t mean every action they take is good, that everything they do is done with the idea that it will better them or that it’ll help others around them. Similarly, just because some characters are following Flagg doesn’t mean they are simply destructive. More often than it, it means they never fit in before, but now have somewhere they can make a difference.

There is a point where Fran sits and thinks (for a fair while) about how a woman in this new world needs a strong, solid man in order to survive. At first, I was thinking “hmm, yeah, that could be true…” but then I remembered White Horse, and how it showed women not only surviving in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been greatly changed and altered by plague, but actually, in a way, showing great strength in it, too.

Then I remembered that the main character’s arc in White Horse was to find the man she loved. Which is fair enough. Not saying in a similar situation I wouldn’t do the same, but I pondered on this a while as I lay in bed, and even though the two books are pretty contrasting in the way they show women, in some ways they are the same. Zoe can’t really rest until she finds Nick. The female characters in The Stand take a background to the male, even Mother Abigail. The strongest female characters – and they are there – are shown to be a tad unstable, or have more typically masculine traits.

But that’s something to get into deeper in another post (Women in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, if only I’d thought about that for my dissertation!).

For now, I’ll say this. The Stand feels a lot like an homage to the era it was written in; fear of the Cold War, the road movie, the whole dystopian feeling in some of the New Hollywood films…it’s typically American. Again, I could write a whole essay on that. It shares a lot (in my mind) with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in the feeling of constant movement and the epic-mythical scale to it. It’s got hints of almost any other apocalypse tale in there, but done in King’s style. (If you can’t guess, I’m a big fan of his style)

If you’re looking for an engaging, intelligent-but-not-too-difficult apocalypse tale, check out The Stand.  (US readers can get it here) For now, I’m running out of apocalypse books to read, so if you have any suggestions, chuck them down in the comments. If you have any thoughts on this book, I’d love to hear them. (All other book recommendations also welcome.)


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