What if an accident in a Department of Defense laboratory unleashed a lethal “super-flu” on the world, killing 99% of the country? What would happen to the survivors? That’s the basic premise for THE STAND, the post-apocalyptic vision originally published by King in 1978, and re-published in expanded form in 1990. I read the expanded edition, which is a good 400 pages (around 150,000 words) longer than the original. As King points out in the preface, these expansions aren’t changes to the story, taking it in a different direction, or re-inventing characters. Rather, they are chapters and passages that were part of the original manuscript, but were cut at the request of the publisher because the accounting department didn’t believe his readership would tolerate a book of that length, nor the sticker price such a volume would demand. King insists these additional sections are not mere indulgence, but they are the chrome-and-paint on the Cadillac, the depth and richness that makes a novel more than just a story. Had the publisher not balked, he would have published the book in this form back in 1978.
This means that while the word count is significantly higher, the essential plot is the same. Across the US, people start getting sick and dying from a strange flu-like disease that no-one seems to be able to identify. By the time the virus has run its course, only a small fraction of the country is left alive, dotted about in small pockets across 3,000 miles. With the death of so many, there are consequences. Vehicles stranded on the highways, their drivers and passengers left to die. Some sections of highway clogged with people trying to flee to “safer” regions, and finding no escape. Infrastructures fail–the power grid goes down with no-one to keep it running, the phones go dead, everything it takes to run a modern society is suddenly gone. No more police force. No more emergency services. No more government. No more radio, television, movies…
Then the survivors start having dreams. Strange dreams, corroborating dreams. There’s an old, old black woman named Mother Abigail, whose kind face and gentle manner draw people to her home in Nebraska. And there’s the dark man, an ominous, foreboding figure in jeans and boots with worn heels, who exudes power, and calls people to himself in Las Vegas. Two centers of civilization converge around these people, and it seems the future of the country hangs on an inevitable conflict between good and evil.
There are two things that are given whenever I read and review Stephen King novels. The first is that the man knows how to write a story. His style may not be to everyone’s taste–he’s a very down-to-earth, jeans-and-sneakers kind of writer, though he can clearly put on a tux when the occasion demands–but he can string words into sentences that sparkle. Not every line is a gem, but there’s more than enough glitter to stock a large jewelry store, and justify his position as one of the leading storytellers of our time. The other given is that there is a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your viewpoint) dose of profanity, and vulgar depictions of sex and sexual situations. Sometimes he can be tasteful, but King is not one to avoid being direct and to-the-point. I, personally, take issue with the volume of vulgarity King uses. I don’t find it intolerable, just mostly unnecessary. But that’s a taste issue, and I only draw attention to it for the benefit of those who share my view. If you disagree, that’s okay. I’ve address this topic somewhat in my review of THE SHINING, and that’s where I’ll leave it. As one might expect, King doesn’t shy away from describing the gruesome either–after all, he has a reputation to uphold. But I will re-state the fact that I’ve yet to find King’s work to be gratuitously violent. He may be pigeon-holed as a horror writer, but he wears the mantle lightly, and will err on the side of suspense if blood can be spared. But for these reasons, King is usually guaranteed at least a 3-star Goodreads review from me, but rarely more than a 4.
For a large book, THE STAND has a good pace, and while there’s not a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter (thankfully–77 cliff-hangers would wear anyone out!), he keeps you interested in the characters and situations. Will Harold find the journal? Will Frannie get caught? Will Tom make it back? Does Stu survive? The questions aren’t all answered in one chapter, but they act as plot threads that keep you turning pages. And as with all good novels, the last hundred pages were the hardest to put down. I read them all near enough in one sitting. I’d be intrigued to read the original, edited version. Although King claims none of the “extra” parts were put in for mere indulgence, I can’t help thinking some sections went on a bit long, and wonder if these were among the restored edits.
Another area THE STAND scores highly for me is in the cast of characters. King has said more than once that he doesn’t do character outlines or personal histories as some writers like to (e.g., J. K. Rowling, who knows the complete history of every character, major and minor, in the Potter novels). To him, characters suggest themselves out of the shadow of the story. In the midst of the telling, these characters take shape and come to life. And yet when we encounter them in the text, they have a depth to them–strengths and flaws, and a suggestion of a life before and beyond the novel. Nick Andros, the deaf-mute, beaten down his whole life because of his disability, emerges as a strong leader with a wise, albeit silent voice. Harold Lauder, the teenage geek, sidelined by his peers, but with more than enough intelligence to know how to survive, making him a useful, if wary ally. Larry Underwood, the irresponsible rock star who feels deep down he’s not really a good guy, but rises to the challenge of responsibility, and taking a stand for the cause of good. In the preface, King says he gets mail from people asking after these characters, as if they’re real. And I believe him.
One area I think King handled badly is that of religion, particulary Christianity. At the end of the preface, he refers to this book as a “long tale of dark Christianity,” and I really don’t have a clue what he means by this. The religious overtones of the novel are, indeed, strong. Throughout the book, he’s setting up a showdown between “the dark man” and Mother Abigail–good and evil. The dark man is described as the devil, and Mother Abigail claims to hear from God, quotes Bible verses, and is regarded as a prophet. More than once characters make reference to God’s will, and the struggle between God’s sovereignty and human autonomy. The depiction of evil as a source of power and magic, and good as embodied in frailty and humility, also draws heavily from the Bible. And yet it is striking to me that there are very few Christians in the novel. The heroes are agnostic at best, and even Mother Abigail seems to embrace a liberal form of Christianity that requires no recognition of and repentance from personal sin, or submission to the lordship of Christ–both essential elements of Biblical Christianity. Mother Abigail’s God doesn’t seek to change the hearts of Mother Abigail’s followers. They can be agnostics, and follow their own sense of right and wrong, but they’re good enough. There are some in the novel that quote from “Revelations” (whether or not King realizes the book is called “Revelation” I can’t tell–he may be stereotyping), and are more “fundamentalist” in their faith, but these are not those who are closest to Mother Abigail.
As a Christian theologian, this is where King loses me. I’m sorry to say, King shows his ignorance of what Christianity actually is (no-one who knows their Bible would quote “God helps those who helps themselves” as Scripture), and instead relies upon what he thinks it should be. King may well be trying to make some quasi-theological points in this. Yes, God does use the foolish to confound the wise, and he will use those who are weak in faith. But if you study the stories in Scripture of those who were used by God, they were all God-fearing, and in the case of the New Testament, were all followers of Christ. I will commend him for suggesting (in the mouth of Mother Abigail), that even acts of evil fall under God’s sovereignty, and are part of a grander divine plan. This is a concept that even some Christians find uncomfortable but which is, I believe, thoroughly Biblical. However, that same mouth will then ascribe to men the power to decide what the outcome will be based on the resources God provides.
I understand why King went this direction. For a start, he had to call on the supernatural in order to get his two factions together. How else could Mother Abigail and the dark man summon their people with no telephone or mail service? They had to be operating on a different wavelength, and the use of dreams was a good plot device. For the purposes of the story, he could have simply let it be “magic” or some undefined supernatural power, but drawing upon Biblical ideas of good and evil gave him a ready store of images and reference points. I don’t fault him so much for going there–indeed, in some ways I would say it was unavoidable; rather I fault him for his clumsy handling of that source.
To sum up, this was an enjoyable read, though definitely R-rated. It’s a solid story with strong characters, and a narrative that will keep you engaged and turning pages. However, I thought there were some sections that were unnecessarily long, and I don’t think he handled the religious aspects of the story very well. If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you ought to read this (though if you’re a fan, you probably have already). For those who like post-apocalyptic novels, you should probably read it, too. It raises some important questions about how society functions, and what it is we really value–especially when everything we take for granted is gone.