You are here

Book review: <i>The Stand</i> by Stephen King

the cover of the book

In Stephen King’s post apocalyptic America, after the government’s superflu has struck and most of the population are dead, the remaining souls are caught up in an epic battle between good and evil.

The story

Charles Campion wakes his wife Sally in the middle of the night, hustles her and the baby out of bed, and hightails it out of the secret army base he’s been monitoring, praying it’s not too late. But it is.

Desperately, fatally ill, he runs his car into a gas pump at a Texaco in Arnette, prompting several regulars to run to his aid. What they don’t realise is that instead of helping a sick man, they are signing their own, and the majority of the populations, death warrants.

The superflu sweeps America fast, wiping out the majority of the population. A very small percentage appear to be immune. These survivors, popping up over America, are all experiencing the same phenomena—they’re dreaming the same dream, being called in the same direction—either to Mother Abigail in Boulder, or the Dark Man in the East. As winter closes in, and the crowds amass, there is a feeling of waiting, of impending doom, of biblical proportions.

It’s a post apocalyptic battle for the souls and lives of the survivors. Mother Abigail and the Dark Man hold court over their respective communities, and a small group of people begin the trek into the darkness from Boulder, in an effort to save the world from the Dark Man.

The style

This is King’s epic fourth novel, and it’s massive. Luckily it’s fairly compelling as well, although my reading experience wasn’t helped by the fact that I had hay fever and a flu, which gave me that authentic, maybe-I’m-dying-of-the-superflu-god-damn-the-american-government feeling. At 1168 pages long, it’s not exactly a light piece of fluff read. And apparently, The Stand is one of those books that people either love or hate. I’d disagree—I felt pretty good about the story, but I wouldn’t put it in my ultimate top ten. Readers should note this is the unabridged version released some years after the original, and I’ve never read the original. So this review is focused solely on the new, unabridged version. However, let’s get down to specifics:

The writing is quintessential King, with his eye for detail and quirky descriptions that really bring the story to life. It’s the little things that matter in three-dimensionalising peripheral characters, and King takes the time to do it, and it really pays off in the reading. Written in the third person limited perspective, King flicks not only to and from each of the main characters of the story, but also will focus on a small character for a section. He puts in the effort for the smallest characters, and this not only brings to life the entire story, but it also increases the emotional investment of the reader, who will have a character come to life in front of them just to be killed off a couple of paragraphs later. In this way, The Stand is well written.

Now I realise that I was reading the unabridged version, and as I said above, the characterisation was excellent as a result. However, I found myself slogging through the first third of the book wondering when the damn thing was actually going to get going. While there were some really lovely individual details in there, I did start to feel overwhelmed and as though the whole thing was occurring in real time... which wasn’t really the reading experience I was looking for.

On the flip side of the writing style, there were some places it fell down. This is probably comparative, because some of the detail is so originally written. However, when there came a scene with a lot of violence, or a death scene, King seemed to regress from originality right over to movie treatment clichés with the jerking, bullets, blood and brain-matter. This may well be because his experiences with violent deaths and post apocalyptic worlds are based on movie and televisual experiences. However, I did find this disappointing compared to his well crafted observation ability in other circumstances. Furthermore, there was a bit too much loss of bladder control for my taste. Sure, people will wet themselves in life threatening situations, but do we REALLY have to hear about it all the time?

There is some pretty classy foreshadowing as the book progresses. King is excellent at foreshadowing; he gives the reader something to hold on to, with just a couple of words, without overstating his hand or giving away plot details. It creates suspense and comfort for the reader all at once. He also is very selective about what he foreshadows, which leaves the reader thinking “why didn’t he foreshadow that bit? What’s going to happen?” This is a pretty good trick, because King also isn’t afraid to kill off a main character in the name of randomness half way through the story. Not too much fanfare, not too much foreboding, and life goes on. The post apocalyptic world is chaotic, and so are the lives that inhabit it. So the foreshadowing and the treatment of the characters within the storyline are just excellent.

King likes to use literary and musical references within the story, and he doesn’t do it in a manner that is strained, forced or self-conscious. The musical references work particularly well as a double nostalgia for the modern reader... the Beatles may give a modern reader a nostalgia for the sixties, which then contributes to the feeling of nostalgia the characters are feeling in their post apocalyptic world.

Quite a bit of the theming for The Stand was religious and social commentary, which is also very Stephen King. While I found the social implications of post-apocalypse interesting, I was less enamoured with the religious questions. However, King is pretty into them, so I guess the unreligiously motivated reader just has to put up with it.

Who is this book for?

Good holiday reading, I think—a big, easy to read novel you can sink your teeth into but are unlikely to finish on the plane ride there. Even non-King fans might enjoy this one—it’s less horror than some of his others and has interesting social commentary.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Hey, if you like this, you like Stephen King. And he only has, you know, thirty odd books.

In short

Title: The Stand
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Signet
ISBN: 0451169530
Year published: 1991
Pages: 1168
Genre(s): Apocalyptic fiction, Thriller, Horror
Review Type: