The Stand by Stephen King
We are a house divided when it comes to classic apocalyptic fiction. I’m a huge fan of Swan Song by Robert McCammon while Mrs Cheesecake just can’t get enough of The Stand…
First came the days of the plague. Then came the dreams.Dark dreams that warned of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil. His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms.
When Pablo Cheesecake said his annual October theme month was going to be apocalyptic fiction in honour of 2012, my mind immediately fell to The Stand, probably the first piece of apocalyptic fiction I ever read. For those that know me, they will probably not be surprised by this fact, as I am known to be a fan of Mr King.
Originally published in 1978, and widely considered a masterpiece, The Stand was not the first Stephen King book I read – that honour goes to Christine. It probably does remain the largest book I have ever read. The 1000+ pages can be somewhat daunting, and even when I did eventually read for the first time, I almost gave up. Hundreds of characters populate this dystopia and at times it is difficult to keep track, but King is a master at characterization, and each individual is so flawlessly crafted that it is easy to empathise with the heroes, detest the villains, and marvel at those that fall somewhere between the two.
The story unfolds in three sections. The first covers the accidental release by the military of a deadly virus, nicknamed Captain Trips, that presents like influenza. Unfortunately, the virus is so virulent it kills over 99% of the global population.
The narrative is told from the perspective of several key characters, which during the second section of the book, are drawn to a small corner of Colorado after sharing dreams of an elderly woman known only as Mother Abigail. A community grows up around this first group as more survivors find their way to what becomes known as the Free Zone.
A second group of survivors are drawn to Nevada by dreams of a charismatic supernatural entity known as Randall Flagg (a character that reappears in several of King’s future novels), or the Dark Man. While the people making up the leadership of the Free Zone are far from perfect, those drawn to Flagg are all intrinsically corrupt. They hold within them the traits of humanity we dislike, such as greed and selfishness.
The two factions and their leaders are clearly represented as good versus evil. As is expected, evil gets a head start and quickly realises that the key to their success is to plant spies in Colorado. When some key characters are killed by a bomb planted by someone seduced by Flagg’s spies, the stage is set for the final section of the book, the stand between good and evil.
As a whole, the book is compelling and poignant, while at the same time being quietly unsettling. King’s observations of the downfall of humanity and its subsequent societal collapse during the early stages of the book are mesmerising, and this is where the true horror in the book lies. There are no rampaging hordes of zombies, or falling nuclear bombs, but people dying by the millions. The emotional trauma of key characters witnessing their loved ones succumb to the virus is handled sensitively and brilliantly. The best and worst of humanity are brought into stark relief by the few survivors.
The real strength in this book are the characters. As I mentioned earlier, the characters are so well outlined, you get to know them intimately. Other fans of the book I have spoken to all have their favourite, and while they maybe archetypes they are exquisitely realised.
Stu Redman is an unassuming working man from Texas and is one of the first characters discovered to be immune to Trips. He is arrested by the government, but escapes from the plague facility he was being held. I think the words ‘some have greatness thrust upon them’ applies to Stu. He is quiet and intelligent, and while he does not seek leadership, the people he encounters naturally look to him for guidance.
Stu bumps into Fran Goldsmith and Harold Lauder while wandering through Maine. Fran is already pregnant, the father of the baby now being dead. On the journey to Colorado, she falls in love with Stu, and becomes something of a moral compass on the governing committee of free zone.
Harold is the brother of Fran’s deceased best friend. An unlikeable individual, who is jealous of Fran’s increasing infatuation with Stu. Despite the havoc Trips reeks in the lives of most people, for Harold, the catastrophic events were a blessing in disguise. Despised and disliked by his peers before the virus, he uses his intellect to become a respected member of the community. However, he never fully lets go of his resentment of Stu caused by his unrequited love for Fran. His character hits a crossroads of sorts, and instead of letting go of his paranoia and building on his new found worth, it actually makes him vulnerable to the wiles of one of Flagg’s agents.
Other favourites are Glen Bateman, a retired professor, who when found by Stu is painting in the middle of the road. An eccentric academic, he is happy to live out his remaining years and ignore the dying world around him, until Stu persuades him that he can contribute enormously to this new society. He becomes firm friends with Stu and is always on hand with some helpful advice.
Nick Andros is a deaf-mute, who when we first meet him is arrested for being a drifter. He is highly intelligent and goes on to become an important part of the council. On escaping jail, he meets a group of survivors where he befriends Tom Cullen, a mentally disabled man, and the two form a bond immediately. Tom is possibly my favourite character. Despite his disability, he is far from simple and one of the most complex characters. He often refers to himself in the third person, and endearingly believes everything is spelled m-o-o-n.
If you are feeling lazy, there is a TV mini-series available too, that while is not terrible, it fails to translate the sheer scope of the novel. To make matters worse, Flagg seems to have been diminished to a mere shadow of his literary counterpart.
In 1991, the book was re-released as The Stand : The Complete And Uncut Edition. The main changes are the setting moves from the 1980s to the 1990s. It also adds a few new characters and more depth to familiar ones. There are also updates to a pop culture references. If you are a fan of dystopian fiction with a smattering of horror, then either version of the novel comes highly recommended from me.