Some folks say that The Stand is Stephen King’s greatest work. The book has been on my TBR for many years, pretty much from my starting of The Gunslinger during my college years. I vaguely knew what the book was about, but I definitely knew that it had a monstrous page count. Other than that, my expectations were moderately high.
In 1990, a superflu swept across the globe. Its mortality rate was greater than 99%. The survivors of this superflu were therefore few. The Stand opens with the outbreak, and it doesn’t take too many pages before people begin dying. King tells this tale through several different points of view (too many for this particular story), from an up-and-coming Rock-and-Roll star to a deaf mute, from a pregnant coed to an insane pyromaniac. All of these survivors each must come to terms with their circumstances, but they also must come to terms with the reasons behind their survival, a reasoning that is possibly more than what seems.
The Stand is gripping… at first. The spread of the superflu and its devastation was an absolute thrill to read, especially considering that my allergies kicked in right as I was starting. But as the pages turned and the survivors rose above their circumstances, it didn’t take long for fatigue to set in. Part of the issue was the enormous cast of characters. King spends time building up each one of them, which makes some sense, but not enough to justify their purpose. I mean, I understand why they were in the story, but I don’t understand why King wanted to give so much mundane detail on so many different people.
Stephen King is a gifted storyteller, that is true. I think it’s also fair to assert that Stephen King is a gifted deliverer of lackluster (or maybe I mean disappointing) conclusions. The Stand gets no reprieve. I felt that after spending 1152 pages with these people that I deserved something more than what I got. Surely King was telling a grand story here. Surely his message and theme deserved climax. Sadly, I felt greatly underwhelmed with the resolutions and the ultimate fates/decisions of the characters.
What did I like? I liked the opening part of the story, right when the superflu was spreading and people were dying. I liked how King dealt with the humanity mindset in that time of catastrophe. I liked the survivor’s initial guilt and ponderings on why they survived. I liked the stirrings in their minds as they felt the urge to pick up life again and journey across the nation. But, as I’ve said, after this elongated exposition, my entertainment waned.
I don’t like sounding so negative. I wonder if part of my problem is with the genre itself. King’s post-apocalyptic romp was probably unique back in 1978 when the first edition of the book came out. This is no longer the case, obviously, and post-apocalyptic stories are run of the mill now. I’m sure part of the initial success with the book is attributed to when it was published (which can be said about any book, truly).
The Stand is much more than a book about a decimating (uh, centi-mating?) epidemic. It’s a book about Good versus Evil, sort of. It’s a book about what it means to be human and be a manipulator or one that’s manipulated. It’s a book about choice and consequences. It’s a book about anger and sex and violence and fear and love. It’s a looooooong book and a trifle boring, but never bad enough to abandon. The Stand is vulgar, as is King’s proclivity, but not as bad as could be expected. Ultimately, The Stand is an unsatisfying novel with a brilliant start-up but an inability to pull through. Any fan of King will likely enjoy the novel—and indeed I did enjoy the novel—but to a Reader familiar with contemporary trends the novel will very likely feel flat. I truly did love the first few hundred pages, but that wasn’t enough to overcome to over-long book. Read at your own discretion.