Novel November

The Stand

by Stephen King


Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Stand by Stephen King

This is a big book. The Complete and Uncut Edition, which is what you'll find on the shelves these days, is over a thousand pages long. It needs to be. The length is the book's greatest strength. Yes, the story is gripping, the details and images disturbing, the characters memorable and engaging, but what really draws you in is the enormity of it all, and ultimately the physical weight of the book itself. I'm not kidding. You hold that sucker in your lap, especially the hardcover version, and you feel the crushing heft of a big, damn story. Doze off reading it, and you run the risk of dying in your sleep from asphyxiation. To tell a big story, you need a big canvas. Stand in front of Picasso's Guernica, which is over 11 feet tall and more than 25 feet wide, and it attacks your senses. The Rite of Spring lashes out at the listener with violent blasts as the dancers stomp to the primitive rhythms. Watching the full director's cut of The Lord of the Rings trilogy requires three meals and a nap. The Stand's enormous length makes you feel as though you've lived through the plague, that you've suffered along with the characters, that you've survived and come out the other side of the holocaust with as much at stake as the heroes. The book requires a great deal of its reader's time, so the question then becomes, does it offer enough in return?

The end of the world starts with a car slowly approaching a gas station. At the wheel is a dead man. The car sheers off one of the gas pumps, but our main protagonist is quick enough to shut off the fuel line. That's Stu Redman, and you're gonna like him. He's a level-headed intelligent guy who makes good decisions and becomes a natural leader in the new society that bands together after the super flu pandemic wipes out 90% of the population. You see, the dead man in the car is the first victim of a government-created virus. Stu has a natural immunity, but the others with him that day begin spreading the virus, and soon the streets are filled with bodies. We see the breakdown of society through the eyes of our protagonists and antagonists. The scenes that introduce the characters contain some memorable, often brutal, images. Stu is contained in a medical facility, but all the attending doctors, scientists, and soldiers fall prey to the illness that comes to be known as Captain Trips. Frannie watches her father die from the flu then hauls his bloated body outside to bury him in the garden. Lloyd Henreid is incarcerated when the pandemic hits, becoming trapped as the only living human in the jail. What he has to do to survive is atrocious.

And then there's the big bad, the walking dude, the man in black, Randal Flagg. He's some serious bad business, and he recruits people to the dark side while Stu Redman and others welcome folks to the light side. The two factions spy on each other, but Stu's enclave becomes too complacent in trying to rebuild civilization while Flagg actively tries to destroy them.

Inevitably, the forces of good must make a stand against the forces of darkness.

Spending so much time with these characters, you can't help but become attached. I like Stu and Frannie, but I also like the Trashcan Man, one of Flagg's recruits who has an affinity with fire. His job is to locate weapons, and boy does he. We see him flashback to being bullied and taunted by his schoolmates. And during the narration of the book, he's used and abused by thug who is known simply as The Kid. You can't write the Trashcan Man off as simply evil the way you can Randal Flagg himself. Trashcan starts as a neutral character, though one with the propensity for setting entire towns on fire as an act of blind revenge. Had he come under the sway of Stu Redman's group, he might have found solace.

Also, inhabiting this world for such a long time, you begin to wonder: What would I do if I were there? I hope you would imagine yourself on Stu's team in Boulder, but hey, it's your fantasy, doowutchyalike. I first completed The Stand on Christmas day back in 1990 when the Uncut Edition was first released. I walked outside, dazed by the book's ending, to what felt like a world bereft of life. There was no one out in the neighborhood, no one on the streets. It felt as if a plague had killed everyone but me. And I thought, This is awesome. I couldn't drive at the time, but that wouldn't have mattered anyway because the roads were sure to be clogged with cars full of dead bodies, so I imagined myself bicycling across country to reunite with my best friend. We'd find a house and clear out the dead and live a life without parents or schools. We'd find food and fend off wolves. The rest of the world could fight the ultimate battle between good and evil, but we'd hook up a power generator and play Super Nintendo forever. Everybody's got their own priorities at the end of the world.

The Stand sticks with you. There are plenty of Stephen King books I've read that I can't remember much about. But certain scenes from this one are burned into memory. Mother Abigail facing down a pack of wolves; Frannie Goldsmith carrying her dead father downstairs, straining under the inert mass; Trashcan Man returning from the desert with his deadly find; Lloyd Henreid's time in prison, working his fingers to bloody nubs trying to unscrew a leg from a metal bed frame; the harrowing trip through the Lincoln Tunnel in complete darkness, surrounded by the dead. King pulls you through fire, over broken glass, tosses you down a mountain, then gives you respite like a precious baby lamb only to slit its throat and skin it alive. When you close the book for the last time, you feel accomplished, not only in having read a thousand pages, but in having survived the apocalypse and the following clash of god and devil. Not everyone you began the journey with made it through. But you did. You stumble out to the real world, the boring world where you are only a bit player with barely a walk-on, memory of the great struggle echoing in your brain. Fading. And fading. But never gone.

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