Book Review: The Stand, by Stephen King

August 24, 2015

In Stephen King’s foreword to the revised version of The Stand, his 1,200-page apocalyptic tale about the impact of an accidentally released military super flu, King explains that he published the new edition in order to restore 400 pages that were originally cut “at the behest of the accounting department” (rather than for any “editorial” reason). I wish he’d gone the other way and cut an additional 400 pages.
 

I don’t say this to be mean. I think King is an extraordinary writer. His horror masterpiece It scared the bejesus out of me (when I made the mistake of reading it alone, at night, in the country). And I loved On Writing, in which he describes his philosophy of crafting fiction by starting with a situation instead of an outline. But while The Stand has swathes of evocative description—my favorite: “It was if his face was held together by a number of unseen bolts and each of them had suddenly been loosened a turn and a half”—I think the narrative would have benefited from more detailed planning.
 

Because, strange as this is to write, King’s apocalypse is kinda boring.
 

He reveals early on that 99.4% of the population is going to be wiped out by the super flu (nicknamed Captain Trips). But it takes forever: non-essential characters come and go, the situation gradually get worse, more non-essential characters flit through… it’s just not as riveting as you’d expect. Part of this is the foreshadowing—King repeatedly steps out of the story to explain how the disease will spread. These interludes felt jarring to me, and although the sense of impending doom they imparted sustained my (begrudging) interest through the lengthy passages King spends establishing what his main characters are like before everything goes to hell, having that advance knowledge also made me think, “Get on with it; can’t everyone hurry up and die?”—another strange comment to find yourself making.
 

Maybe I’ve just read and watched too many more-recent takes on the end of the world—although my favorite is still Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic I am Legend (of which King is a noted admirer)—but I wish The Stand had skipped the outbreak and started in the aftermath. The characters’ backstories could have been compressed and worked in as flashbacks; no one’s arc really gets going until the halfway point anyway, when the survivors of the super flu begin forming into two camps: a mostly benign “Free Zone” in Boulder, Colorado, and a mostly malignant opposition centered around Las Vegas.
 

That’s when things get biblical.
 

The two camps are led by antithetical symbols: the Free Zone coalesces around Mother Abigail, a God-fearing 108-year-old black woman; the Vegas castoffs are drawn to The Dark Man, a probable servant of the Devil. Both leaders wield forms of magic, and both use dreams to summon their followers.
 

And man, are there a lot of dreams. The religious imagery certainly fits with the end-of-the-world motif, but other people's dreams aren't that much more interesting to read than they are to listen to, even when they're written by a good writer. The bits where the Free Zone grapples with how to rebuild society are thought-provoking, but there's a fair amount of fat here as well. (King delivers several conversations in this section via committee minutes… committee minutes!)
 

Eventually, the Free Zone and The Dark Man take their respective “stands” against each other, and the novel progresses to a relatively satisfying conclusion. But I still wanted the journey to be shorter. In On Writing, King says his formula for editing is “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” I wish he’d taken his own advice (and then some) while revising The Stand, because there’s an excellent 400 page novel inside.
 

It’s just badly outnumbered by pages that should have been—and stayed—cut.


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