Spoilers of course!
To quote Larry Underwood, baby, can you dig your man? Of course, I dig my man, Stephen King, creator of the macabre, the strange, and all with a modern American realism aesthetic grounding it. And in the case of The Stand, an epic worthy of the Bible with how many names there are to keep track of. Apparently, King was inspired to create a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, and given how much journeying happens in the novel from one coast of America to another and back again, I can see that.
The version of The Stand I read wasn’t the original 1978 release, but the 1990 re-release as “complete and uncut,” at a staggering 1,153 pages, about 330 more pages than the original version. I originally began reading this book years ago, made it 450 pages in, and for some reason put it down. I revisited the novel from the beginning in late September, and it took me about two months to read the first 650 pages, and two days to read the last 503. I’m weird like that.
A short synopsis: Captain Trips is a super flu that runs roughshod over the entire globe in a matter of days, and as a result, civil society as it’s known, collapses. But because it’s King, there’s more afoot here, mainly supernatural elements between Mother Abigail (a stand-in for God, literally) and Randall Flagg (a stand-in for the Devil, literally). Both these opposing forces attract adherents to the cause, with Mother Abigail setting up shop with her new society in Boulder, Colorado, and Randall Flagg setting up his version of society in Las Vegas. Inevitably, these two opposing forces have to clash, and they do.
My short version review is that there’s a great 450 page book in here somewhere. The arc of the characters is certainly befitting the epic. Some I liked from the beginning through to the end (Stu Redman, Nick Andros, Tom Cullen, Kojak, Mother Abigail, Glen Bateman), some I hated at the beginning but came to love (Larry Underwood primarily), and then the one I loved the most at the beginning and was irritated with the most by the end (Frannie Goldsmith).
I’ve always heard The Stand talked about as King’s best work, so I had high expectations coming into this book, particularly off the heels of reading The Shining earlier this year, loving his other epic and second-longest book next to this one, It, and other great books of his. But I can’t say it lived up to those expectations.
For one, I didn’t feel like the writing was up to King’s usual level. In his own memoirs, 2000’s On Writing, which if you haven’t read it you should, King himself said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. And yet, this book is littered with more adverbs than cars in post-Captain Trips America to the point of being distracting. If you’re not familiar, adverbs are the words with “ly” added on to the end like “anxiously,” “poorly” and “bravely” and so on.
There’s also just a lot of filler here that isn’t interesting to me. A super flu has ravaged the planet, but we get bogged down in the tiniest of things, like Larry Underwood trying to teach Nadine how to ride a motorcycle. That’s one example off the top of my head, but through the first 500 pages or so forth, besides a few moments of action that show how fast society deteriorated, it feels like nothing much is happening. Again, I get the argument that this helps with those aforementioned character arcs, but it wasn’t keeping my attention. It wasn’t making me want to flip the pages. I kept waiting for it to pick up, to begin fleshing out what’s going on, and another 100 pages would pass without much happening. Instead, it felt like I spent 10 years in that prison with Lloyd Henreid (another section of the book where I groaned when I got to anything having to do with Lloyd).
This sort of bleeds into my next point, but one issue I had is that we get a lot of time spent on the small things, but we speed past the big things. Like, literally there’s a chapter that shows snapshots from around the country of society disintegrating, and that was fun! But it was snapshots. I’d rather spend more time on the fall of civilization.
My second point is that within a matter of days, you’re telling me that society disintegrated that fast? Yes, I get that we’re granting the plausibility of a super virus that spreads and kills that fast, but I have a hard time imagining society falling that fast. Or that the military and government would turn so draconian that fast. Since it was the military’s fault the virus even escaped, they tried to control the spread of the virus itself, but also the spread of information about the virus by clamping down (as in, killing) on the media. We get some neat scenes of brave media figures releasing the information anyway or trying to. But I don’t know. That switch from normal, functioning democracy to dictatorship in a matter of days was too unbelievable for me, and as I said, we didn’t get to spend enough time on how that happened. Even with a super virus happening, at that point of the switch, the super virus was only in pockets of the country.
My other criticism is that the book is rather nasty toward women, and it was noticeable and bothered me. Even the ostensible good guys, like Larry Underwood (who I did eventually like because he turned a new leaf), were jerks to women. Some of that writing just wasn’t enjoyable to read. Let’s just say, there’s a lot of horniness going on in post-Captain Trips America. And as has been a criticism of other King books, there’s the magical black person (Mother Abigail) to save the day.
The interesting thing about a lot of King books is that the supernatural force, in this case, Randall Flagg, is never as interesting as the regular evil humans, in this case, Harold Lauder. Randall Flagg didn’t scare me. Harold Lauder with his Ledger and his dynamite did. There also wasn’t that strong resolution I wanted. Harold died because of a freak oil slip motorcycle accident (probably brought upon by Randall Flagg after he’s done with him) and then he shot himself in the head due to his injuries. I wanted one of our protagonists to confront him. Randall Flagg’s “death” was a little bit better since the Trashcan Man came back and nuked Las Vegas. Yes, you read that right.
One final negative point related to the story. The reason I didn’t like Frannie toward the end of the book is that because she changed and not in a good way. In the beginning, despite dealing with a stupid boy getting her pregnant and having to bury her parents because they died of Captain Trips, she was a strong, interesting woman. Yet, by the end of the book, she becomes all-consumed by her love of Stu and in a lot ways, is just whiny. I particularly disdained her constant interruptions of Mother Abigail when Mother Abigail was on her deathbed. It not only seemed out of character for the Frannie at the beginning of the book, but was frustrating! She’s on her deathbed! Let her talk. Even when Mother Abigail through God healed Frannie’s back and other injuries, Frannie was still doubting and angry because of her love of Stu. Gah.
Also, a rather small item is I’m confused by the cover art for the book in the 1978 version, and the reprinted 1990 one has a version of it on the inside:
To my memory, nothing remotely like that happens in the book. As I said, that’s one of my criticisms that we never get such a straight up clash of good and evil.
What I Liked
Now, to the good stuff. Something I’ve always desired out of post-apocalyptic stories is to spend more time in the long-term aftermath and rebuilding stage. Which, this isn’t the long-term necessarily, but I’m curious how the survivors would rebuild society. In this case, we get considerable time with Stu, Glen, Nick and the others trying to rebuild society into something resembling normal America in Boulder, and that stuff I did find interesting. King got really granular with the discussions and having committee meetings, and all of that. I also thought it was realistic that instead of having the usual warring factions among humans and assuming humans would become wild animals during an apocalypse, humans are still mostly the same, i.e., they want a return to normalcy. After all, a flu already wiped them out. There’s not much energy left for being marauding monsters.
So, in a practical sense, how would you do it? How would you rebuild society? Well, the first thing you need to do in a modern society is turn the power back on. That would generate a lot of good will. The second thing is forming leaders and laws again. There’s also the problem of all the dead bodies and moving cars from the roads. Later, they even do snow plowing! I dig all of that. Baby, I dig my man on that score.
Not all of the Lord of the Rings-like journey across America from coast to coast and back again is uninteresting. I did enjoy the final leg of that with Stu and Tom trying to get back to Boulder. At that point, I’m rooting for them to do it, and to make it. The Christmas scene where Stu, as thanks to Tom for saving his life, gets a little Christmas tree complete with presents, was perhaps one of the most heartwarming scenes I can recall King ever writing. That was beautiful.
And the relationship between Tom and Nick, with Tom being someone with an intellectual disability, and Nick deaf and mute, was one of my favorite relationships in a King novel. Even after Nick is killed by Harold in that dynamite explosion (nooooo, Nick!), Nick helps Tom “beyond the grave,” as it were. I would have rioted if Tom was killed off.
Some Other Random Thoughts
- As I also mentioned, Larry Underwood was a character I groaned at whenever his scenes came up at the beginning, but by the end, he’d reformed and became a true, if reluctant, leader. He was a bad-ass at the end standing up to Randall Flagg. I was sad when he got nuked. I didn’t much care about Ralph Brentner, though. Sorry.
- Glen Bateman was one of my favorite characters, first for the sociology aspect he brought to all the aforementioned how-to-rebuild-society talk, and second, because by the end, he also became a bad-ass. He was this old dude at the beginning of the book who just wanted to paint pictures with his dog and drink beer cooled by the river. By the end, the dude literally walked miles and miles from Boulder to Las Vegas, and then had a defiant, laughing-in-Randall-Flagg’s-face end. I also thought his final words about forgiving Lloyd Henreid for killing him was reminiscent of Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” kinda thing.
- Kojak! Come on, King doing a short chapter from the perspective of a dog was awesome. God seemed to work through the intellectually disabled, the very old, and dogs. God’s a dog lover confirmed. I could’ve used almost a surviving in the wilderness book by itself of Stu and his dog Kojak.
- So, why did everyone have dreams about Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg? Was that ever explained? Was it God trying to tell the coming story?
- I find it rather amusing that at the end, Stu and Frannie want to get away from Boulder, and others do, too, because it’s getting overcrowded (with a few thousand people). The world has literally ended, and it’s getting overcrowded. But, hey, as an introvert, that’s a mood.
- My favorite minor character was probably Sheriff John Baker, who early on helped Nick Andros. He was a good guy trying to do the right thing by Nick Andros, and unfortunately, Captain Trips got him.
- One of my favorite scenes was when Dayna Jurgens, who was sent as one of three spies to Las Vegas, was able to literally slip away from Randall Flagg and kill herself before he could get what he wanted out of her (which was the name of the third spy, Tom Cullen). She was a cool character who we didn’t get nearly enough time with.
- Speaking of which, why can Randall Flagg change a knife into a banana when dealing with Dayna Jurgens, but seems rather inept and normal otherwise?
- Stu needed one more action scene, I think. He has that moment when he escapes from Stovington by killing the guard, but nothing much after that. He didn’t get to go after Harold or Randall Flagg. In fact, we never quite had any moments where a main bad guy and a main good guy clashed. I needed that clashing climax!
My Final Thoughts
Overall, I do dig the rather on-the-nose theme King had about life being cyclical, whether that’s humans who, even after an apocalypse, will likely rebuild a society with the same problems as before, as was teased with Boulder, and in the sense of Randall Flagg, who survived the nuke blast. In other words, there’s always going to be two opposing forces, good and evil, in the world. Also, that the people on both sides, the ones in Las Vegas and the ones in Boulder, didn’t seem all that different to those who interacted with both. It’s just that, in the case of those in Las Vegas, their fear pushed them to accept a strongman (Randall Flagg) promising to make the world better and safe, whereas the Boulder people were scared, to be sure, but they were putting their fears to constructive use and in the collective.
I would recommend the book, but with the caveat to lower expectations. It’s not King’s best book. It’s not even a top five one for me. But it sure seems to be for other people, and that’s great for them! If you’re a King fan, certainty it’s a must-read because of how revered it is. If you’re into the star thing, I gave the book four out of five stars. As far as King goes, that’s a rather low score for me. If I really enjoy a book, it’s an automatic five stars. But since this one dragged in places and at times seemed a chore to get through, I gave it four stars.
A comparison here is that as mentioned, It is his second longest book behind The Stand, also topping 1,000 pages. Yet, It not only didn’t feel anything like 1,000 pages, I wanted more! Whereas The Stand felt every bit its 1,000 plus pages.
To put it differently: If you make me go through hundreds of pages building up to an epic clash of good and evil, I better get an epic clash of good and evil. Instead, a Trashcan Man comes in and nukes Las Vegas. Womp womp. We went from granular throughout to grandiose. I would have preferred a more personal clashing.
Thank you for reading. If you’ve read The Stand, what did you think? Did you read the original version or the uncut version? I wonder if I had read the original version, if I would have liked it more.