I’ve never been a big Stephen King fan. There I said it. Easily one of the most successful writer’s of all time, I just couldn’t get into the stuff he wrote. I like monsters. I like psychological thrillers. I like horror. But somehow, I never really liked Stephen King. I tried. I read Thinner, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and none of it really grabbed me. I started The Dark Tower and got into it a bit, but still managed to put it down and not pick it back up again.
So why subject myself to 1200 pages of him? I couldn’t tell you. Reading The Stand has always felt like a rite of passage as a reader. Like you weren’t in the “It” crowd (pun intended) until you’d plodded through the density that is The Stand. And I did it. Lord knows it wasn’t the easiest thing to hack through, but I found I enjoyed it more than any King book I’d tried. And now, for my (slightly) informed opinion:
This book,as you can probably tell, is a bit tough to get through. It’s long, slow in places, and cuts some corners inexplicably while laboring intensely in other places where it felt unnatural. That being said, the length of the book is ambitious, and the middle section is exciting and interesting enough to almost stand on its own. Once Captain Trips starts mowing folks down, the prose really comes into its own. Things get exciting, the post-apocalyptic piece starts kicking in, and the pages start turning.
The characters are hit and miss for me. Stu Redman definitely felt like a well-developed good ol’ boy from East Texas. Frannie’s giggle fits and semi-demurity painted her as a perfect New England college ingenue with a kind heart and sharp wit. Larry Underwood was a bit bizarre, the emerging pop icon who struggles to believe that he’s not a complete asshole, but it felt real enough. And Nick Andros was believable and strong, and even though he was mute the disability never over-shadowed the character. So all the folks on the “good” side were likable and relatable for the most part.
The folks on the “bad” side were somewhat less impressive. Lloyd being the best example, he enters the story as a drug-addled homicidal maniac. Somehow magic makes him “better” and he becomes a consigliere to a demon (-ish thing). Same thing with Harold and Nadine. They seemed to be either inexplicably bad or inexplicably good, and relied on external influences to determine their actions. Harold flirted with relatability, as did Nadine, until they were ripped from the ranks of the “good” people by supernatural forces.
Some spoilers below.
That may define my biggest issue with the entirety of the book. I could not buy the supernatural elements, as it felt like the author couldn’t decide what role the “magic” elements should play. The intrigue of a drifter archetype and a centenarian African-American ultra-grandma becoming holy (and unholy) lodestones for the surviving population had me hooked for a few hundred pages, but the execution was lacking. It felt like King couldn’t decide if he wanted supernatural forces to be incredibly prevalent and tangible, or unseen and more subtle. The flu came about through strictly scientific means, with no innuendo that it may have been a part of unnatural machinations.
Randall Flag is a bit of a mystery. He runs the gamut of being a spooky, haunting but grounded character to some kind of possessed or straight-up demonic entity. I read the whole thing and I’m still not sure. I’m not convinced King knows either. I bought the seeing through or possessing (kind of) animals, or the Third Eye granting him some form of remote viewing ability. All these things aren’t active abilities that physically change the world or the environment. It’s subtle magic that grants information and that’s it. Perfect. Mother Abigail had a less-direct form of Special Sight, and that worked too. I’m with you, Steve.
And then, at the climax, which you’ve actually built up to masterfully and had me on the edge of my seat, suddenly he can cast Chain Lightning. And you lost me. I’m probably complaining more than I should because I firmly believe well-crafted villains, and to a lesser extent anti-heroes and anti-villains, are the most interesting characters in a book, and there just aren’t any in The Stand. Harold is too whiny, and lets himself be controlled by outside forces. Same with Nadine and Lloyd. Randall is all over the place, part weird vagabond and part demonic antagonist, and none of it is very compelling.
I’m about done ranting and raving about the bad parts. The beginning dragged a bit for me, and the ending was…something. But the middle portion (which adds up to about an 800-page book on its own) is incredibly strong. Once the handful of main protagonists start working their way toward Boulder, and then when they get there, the story gets good. It’s people living together, interacting, and trying to re-form a society in a very real and authentic way. The wonky, back-and-forth supernatural forces take a bit of a back seat to the “good” characters just being human. And that’s where the strength of this novel lies. I love elements of the divine,mythical, or metaphysical in stuff I read. In fact, I often prefer it. But here, it just wasn’t executed well.
Overall, I’d give The Stand 3.5 long-ass walks out of 5. Because lord there was a ton of walking. Not quite Lord of the Rings but damn close.
And now, I’m done. Signing Off.