This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death.
And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides – or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abagail – and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.
The Stand. It’s one Stephen King’s most popular works. And in the uncut edition, with a bunch of extra material added in, this is one huge book. I listened to the audiobook, and that was a whopping 47 hours long. Which is not to say that it feels overly long, or drags in places. It doesn’t. The story moves at a leisurely rate, true, but never feels slow.
The book starts out as a standard post apocalyptic story. There’s an accident at a secret research facility, and the superflu spreads. Like wildfire. Within a few days over 99% of the population is decimated by a disease that mutates so fast the immune system just can’t keep up. There is no cure, no vaccine. If you get it, that’s it, you’re done for. Unless you are one of the very, very few people who are immune to it. The first third or so of the book has us following a variety of characters – Franny, college student. Stu, a quietly intelligent resident of Arnette, where the pandemic begins. Larry, a rising singer. Nick, a 22 year old deaf-mute. Lloyd, a simple minded but morally bankrupt man captured after a murder spree. And many more. We watch as these people see their world fall apart, see their families and friends and pretty much everyone succumbs to the superflu, AKA Captain Trips. They watch as the military tries to cover up its existence – first with lies and propaganda, and then with martial law, until it is itself destroyed by the superflu.
And the creepy part? I sneezed when I was reading all this, and for a moment my heart stopped, my breath caught, and I found myself starting to panic. Until I realised that this is only a book. That I’m not going to die choking and rasping for breath in a few days. That will give you an idea as to how real it all feels, how well King has weaved his words. I really sympathised with all the poor suffering characters after that.
And it is all handled superbly. The characters are very well written, and seems to burst out of the book with life. They have their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks, their baggage. Basically, real people. These aren’t heroes or geniuses or badasses – they’re real people, trying to cope with a world gone mad. I enjoyed all of this, but it was still mundane. I mean, virus wiping out humanity? That’s hardly groundbreaking. (Though it may well have been when the Stand was written). Enjoyable, but nothing special.
Until the dreams started. And then the book transcended, from post apocalyptic to a good vs. evil story with horror and supernatural elements. Our protagonists are picking up the pieces, and finding out that life is actually not so hard – at least for the short term. Everything is for the taking. Cars, bikes, clothes, food, medicines – everything is just lying around for the taking. Which I didn’t entirely believe, to be honest, but took it with a grain of salt. And then I realised the book wasn’t about the pandemic at all. It only exists as background, setting the stage, if you will, for the struggle for humanity’s soul.
People start having nightmares about a mysterious figure called the Dark Man. And of a 108 year old woman called Mother Abagail. These two represent the sides of evil and good, the leaders. And the people gravitate towards one or the other, depending on their natures. And the battle is on.
Except that it isn’t a battle in the traditional sense. Sure, the Dark Man, AKA Randall Flagg, is out to get them. But the real focus is on the struggle of individuals, not armies. The people of the Boulder Free Zone (where Mother Abagail and her followers have settled) try to survive, to recreate something approaching “normal”. Trying to be good when faced with an implacable enemy. An enemy with supernatural powers and creepy ways. Try to gather the pieces of their lives and shape them into a society. And it is in these moments that the book reaches its high point. The situations are wildly different, but people struggle with the same issues – love, hate, morality, God and religion, ends vs. means – as we do now. And I absolutely loved the ride.
Stephen King has an amazing knack of creating people, real three-dimensional characters, in just a few lines. And he employs that to great effect, weaving dozens of stories within the larger story. Romance. Hurt. Betrayal. Fear. Death. Hope. All this and more happens, leaving you almost overwhelmed by the raw emotions.
The climax though… There was a lot of buildup to it. Hundreds of pages. It couldn’t match the expectations I had.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t good – it was good. But compared to how great the rest of the book was, I expected more than the almost deus ex machina-ish resolution. But that’s the trouble with discovery writers. Their characters are amazingly real, their stories draw you in, but their endings leave something to be desired.
And another thing I didn’t quite like was the post ending parts. Once the struggle is resolved, there’s still pages and pages of stuff, where nothing much happens. You know what will happen. I found myself wishing, for the first time in this huge book, that the author would just get on with it.
So yeah, the three acts were like 1< 2 > 3 in how much I liked them. The beginning was good, the middle was excellent, the final bits were okay.
A word about the narration. Like I said, I listened to The Stand audiobook. And the narrator, Grover Gardner, has done a remarkably good job of it. I’m pretty sure I liked the book better than I would have if I’d read it. His acting was spot on as he managed to make all the several characters sound lifelike and unique, hitting all the right notes and emotions. So I would definitely recommend that you check it out on Audible, even if you’ve read it already. If you haven’t, then you’re missing something really unique.