The Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, I picked up Stephen King's original, "abridged" version of The Stand . At the time, it all seemed so far-fetched: a global pandemic that rages out of control and ends up claiming millions of lives? What fantastical science fiction! Imagine my surprise when, several decades later, a global pandemic raged out of control and claimed millions of lives. It turns out that Stephen King, the spine-tingling storyteller of the supernatural, was something of a prophet - the Nostradamus of the 1980s, as it were.
Though I kept the unabridged version of The Stand on my "TBR" list for many years, COVID inspired me to finally tackle this behemoth of a book. I realize that it's morbid to read a novel about a deadly pandemic while in the middle of a deadly pandemic, but my macabre sensibilities prevailed over my good taste. And, after almost exactly two years of off-and-on-again reading, I finally finished all 1,141 pages of King's magnum opus. Needless to say, it feels like I just finished a never-ending literary marathon. With that analogy in mind, crossing the finish line simultaneously feels like a relief and a reward.
For those not in the know, The Stand is essentially three books wrapped in one: a cautionary science-fiction tale about the outbreak of a government-manufactured virus, a quasi-realistic yarn about rebuilding civilization in a post-apocalyptic world, and a supernatural story involving the immortal battle of good and evil. With its vaguely Christian overtones (most obviously represented in the angelic figure of Mother Abagail and the devilishly vicious Randall Flagg), the novel details the never-ending conflict of God and the Devil - the polar extremes that exact their gravitational pull on the mild-mannered citizens of the United States. Though Mother Abagail fails dangerously close to the "Magical Negro" trope, she is the purest, holiest figure in the novel. Hopefully, King's intentions were not to dehumanize; however, I won't speak to his complex, complicated motivations. In any case, this super-sized novel tackles some big themes, including government malfeasance, the temptation of evil, and the triumph of the human spirit. Unsurprisingly, for an ambitious novel of this scale, the book is not a literary grand slam: King falters periodically, with majestic moments of poetic glory frequently overshadowed by his bloated storytelling.
While I'm normally a fan of the "director's cut" with movies and books, I think it's safe to say that King would have benefitted from an artful editor. Although The Stand is impressive with its epic ambition, the story gets bogged down in too many subplots and convoluted characters. Did we really need a chapter about The Trashcan Man and The Kid traversing the desert and spending a night in a motel room? In my opinion: NO. Though I admire King's dedication to crafting a narrative of this scope, reading The Stand became incredibly tedious - insurmountably so, it seemed at times. As I mentioned previously, reading through the 1,141 pages of the book often felt like a never-ending marathon. In this case, I would've settled for a half-marathon and been happy.
That's not to say, however, that The Stand is without merit. Undeniably, King captures the suffering, grief, and tenacity of survivors - something even more relatable because of our recent experiences with the coronavirus. There are passages threaded throughout the novel that ring of true beauty and poetry; likewise, several conversations (particularly between Glen Bateman and Stu Redman) raise thoughtful - perhaps even profound - philosophical questions. Not too shabby for a book about the end of the world.
Recent trends in literary fiction have widened the gates for science fiction and horror in ways that would have been unfathomable in the past. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a prime example of a sci-fi novel that brilliantly tackles apocalyptic settings with the luminescence of well-crafted poetry and insightful prose. Sadly, The Stand pales in comparison to such works. Perhaps, it's unfair to compare King's novel with Station Eleven: although Mandel's book is vastly superior, the kernel of her novel owes a sizable debt to King. However, Station Eleven succeeds in capturing the struggles of three-dimensional characters caught in the surreal storm of unthinkable events, creating a literary masterpiece in the process. It's in this fashion that Mandel surpasses King: although certain characters in The Stand are imbued with thoughtful, three-dimensional portrayals, others (especially the women in the story) are less effectively crafted. By comparison, Kirsten Raymonde and Jeevan Chaudhary (let alone Arthur Leander, Miranda Carroll, and Tyler Leander) have been carefully wrought in ways that Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder are not. And don't even get me started on the Trash Can Man. While King is clearly a visionary, sometimes he overlooks the forest of his characters for the trees of his plot points. That's truly a pity.
Mark Twain once said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” By that definition, The Stand is indisputably a classic piece of literature. Although I do feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a Herculean undertaking like reading this novel, I also recognize that King's magnum opus is a marathon that I didn't need to tackle. That might sound like sacrilege to the King-obsessives out there, but it's true. For the casual King fans out there, I only have one piece of advice: skip the book and watch the TV series, instead. Stephen King is, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive, prodigious writers of his - or any other - generation. As flawed and imperfect as The Stand might be, it's still a historic achievement worth celebrating. Hopefully, other readers won't wait until the next pandemic to give it a shot.
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