The Stand: A Book Review

Why I chose to read it: The book fit multiple categories on my 2015 Book Challenge list. When I was looking to read a Stephen King I wanted to do it right, I wanted to read his best. While this is such an arbitrary notion, I did find more support for The Stand than any other Stephen King novels. Plus, the concept intrigued me. That usually helps!

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Amazon Rating: 4.5/5 (2,379 reviews)

Goodreads Rating: 4.32/5 (341,859 ratings)

LibraryThing Rating: 4.34/5

What Others Are Saying:

“In short (well, not so short), this is the book that has everything – adventure, romance, prophecy, allegory, satire, fantasy, realism, apocalypse, etc., etc. Even Roger Rabbit gets mentioned. ”The Stand” does have some great moments and some great lines… But the overall effect is more oppressive than imposing.” ~The New York Times Book Review, Robert Kiely (May 13, 1990)

“This book is good. M-O-O-N, that spells good. It’s too damn long. It meanders from scene to scene. I’m glad that I’m finally done with it. But I can’t, in good conscience, give this book 3 stars, because these characters are simply masterful.” ~Goodreads Reviewer Mike, (May 6, 2012)

“The Stand, in my opinion, marks Stephen King’s progression from horror to literature. Consistently voted fans’ favorite King novel ever since its initial publication in 1978 (although I personally consider the novel It his finest work), The Stand delivers an archetypal conflict pitting good against evil against a backdrop of civilization itself” ~Amazon Reviewer Daniel Jolley (November 15, 2004)

My Take: 

As I said above, I wanted to do Stephen King and I wanted to do it right. And, if this is King doing it all right, then why did it all feel so wrong? When picking up a Stephen King novel you know the price you’re going to pay… About $8 for a floppy paperback and a few days of equally floppy arms as your biceps recover from lugging this thing around. In my case, I did The Stand via audiobook. All fifty hours of it. Fifty hours that I can never get back, but also wouldn’t want to, if only, for the simple fact that I’ll never wonder about Stephen King again.

Initially, I was enamored by the premise and the beginning. So often we read post-apocalyptic novels close to the “Event” or even post-Event (hence the “post” part of post-apocalyptic). McCarthy’s The Road seems so far away from the Event that sometimes the only reason the reader continues is to see if there will be any clues as to why the world, or at least this corner of the world, has become so… grey. But, The Stand? When I would brag about The Stand I would tell people it is “pre-during-and-post-apocalyptic”. Watching the world, particularly the United States, fall apart was fascinating. Upon completion of the book I really think there was more room for the downfall. If King is going to elaborate without remorse why was this section cut so short?

And as for things I enjoyed about the book, well, I invite you to read the previous paragraph a few more times.

I didn’t care for anything after the 99.4% passed away. I didn’t like the idea of forming two different communities. One wholly good and the other is evil, it’s that simple and that heavy-handed, the good and evil, that is. The dimensions of good and evil are so clear cut that a primary schooler could tell the difference. In fact, for a Stephen King novel this might be the most accessible for a child*.

The journeys of our twenty or so main characters seemed so short and generic and without major setbacks that I never worried. I did enjoy that, early on, King was not afraid to kill off what seemed to be a major contributor to the plot. Initially, this created a chaotic atmosphere that mirrored the environment, but as the novel trudged on the reader realized there were untouchables, and not to fret over their lives if they ever came face to face with a confrontation. This realization made the two main catalysts towards the end of the book fall flat on their face. Namely, the Harold detonation and the Trashcan Man detonation.

The pacing of the deaths by themselves were not the only reason for these episodes to lack the punch they should. While I know I may be the only one to pick a fight with King’s characters, I must continue in my review. Even when reading poor reviews of the book, the reviewer often tipped a cap to the characters and their development. But, I believe that some are confusing “change” and “development”. One character in general, Larry Underwood, “changes”. Once a womanizer, Larry eventually comes to settle down and even declines the advances of a no-strings-attached offer from a very desperate woman. There is a notable change, sure, but why? Larry seems to change for no other reason than the author wanted him to change. It isn’t a development. It isn’t an arc. No, it’s a simple, straight line from who he was to who he became. There are no struggles for Larry… he’s just a good guy eventually, for someone constantly being told he “was not a good guy”. I know comparing King to Faulkner is futile but, if we are looking for a character struggling to be what they are/aren’t, well, “Larry Underwood ain’t no Joe Christmas”.

The other characters are what they always were. The good characters were good and the evil remained evil. Even Harold never displayed much in the way of being a good person, and eventually fell further into what he was. Harold really comes the closest to following an arc (since downward spirals are made up entirely of arcs). The details of his high school days were never painted in a positive light and he eventually succumbs to this version of himself.

Other characters only seem to exist because they must be used for King’s purpose. Tom Cullen is the first to come to mind, though there are plenty that seemingly exist for this reason. While Tom does create a bit of self-deprecating comic relief, he also exists so that Nick can maneuver Tom like the simple minded pawn King made him to be. Also, Glen, the sociologist is blatantly the Chorus, not ever really talking to the characters he is to be engaged with but to act as the mediator between said characters and the reader.

Also, in terms of characterization, one would expect to read a relatively contemporary novel without such blatant lack of challenging the gender roles. I know that 1978 wasn’t the most progressive year for women’s rights but The Stand doesn’t distinguish itself from The Scarlet Letter (nearly 130 years it’s senior) in these terms. The women are there for a good time or to be slapped down when they dare use their mouth for anything other than… well, you get the point. Fran the main female protagonist is pregnant, Nadine is used as a sex toy, and Abigail is never mentioned without “Mother” thrown in front of her name. When a character dies it is always left for the women to fret over a life lost while the men hatch their next plan by drawing lines in the dirt and sipping warm beers.

Further, the good ol’ Boulder community was a bore. In one of my writing workshops we discussed why literature is usually depressing. The reason being that a plot of a good thing happening followed by another positive followed by another positive into infinity just doesn’t make for a good read. The Boulder community is a great study in this. Most of the characters get to Boulder with little resistance along the way. They, then, create a society without a tinge of resistance. By the narrator’s account this community receives chunks of groups daily. The reader would have to assume each of these groups come with their own built in hierarchy. Their own leader, their own sociologist, philosopher, mother figure…. But, somehow the Boulder committee is made of  seven familiar faces without any chirp from outsiders, new or old. Every Boulder citizen is almost always in agreement. The only danger lurking in this span is Harold, and to a lesser extent Nadine. Eventually, as a reader, I found myself rooting for Harold, if for no other reason than that he stood for action. I knew the plot would actually move forward during his parts, though, as with anything regarding this novel, this isn’t an absolute as we have to sit through his accounts of his new career of removing bodies for whatever reason. Once Boulder is established the novel becomes more of a history lesson in political development than anything. More than once King forces the reader to listen in on committee meetings ad nauseum. Where a simple compact explanation of the meetings would suffice, King opts to account for every detail of every meeting.

The late Kurt Vonnegut left us with very simple rules for writing. Among them is that “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” (Also among the list is “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted”, but King has rarely considered time a factor, now has he?) The Stand very rarely advances, in action or otherwise**, and it sure as hell doesn’t reveal character as much as it just reinforces the first or second dimension of very flat characters.

Also lacking was the narrator. I found the third person omniscient narrator confusing, or maybe he was just confused him/herself. The use of a journal was an odd tactic, at least as the change of pace style it added, since the journal itself was crucial to the story. There are also parts of the novel when the narrator withholds information either for suspense or out of ignorance (ignorance in terms of simply not knowing). This first caught my eye when Nick spies a dead person in the road which causes him to spill over his handlebars. The corpse then begins crawling towards the bruised and battered Nick. It’s a tense moment until the corpse is nothing more than another character. For an all-knowing narrator this moment became nothing more than a cheap trick. The omniscient narrator had always known the corpse was alive, but chose to mislead the reader. There are numerous other times the narrator simply just doesn’t know a detail for no real reason. Once, in a town hall meeting an unknown character shouts their discontent at the committee. The narrator adds that the voice was indiscriminate and that it could’ve come from a man or woman. Why even include this non-detail? Not only does this spit in the face of Vonnegut’s rule, it just should not exist. If King was willing to give the shout a description, why not just go for it? King is not in any hurry, so why stop at these tiny little moments to create such an ignorant narrator?

Overall, I think that The Stand is just a very, very, very elaborate doodle in the margin. A black and bleeding blob that represents the aimless passing of time. The type of doodle that goes so deep it leaves it’s mark and indentation on pages well beyond it’s intended purpose. It’s purpose is to exist because for the simple reason that it’s creator wanted it to. The doodle goes this way because the creator wanted the line to go that way for no other reason than want. The doodle could look like an alien or a tornado or the end of the world but really it’s just an incoherent blob that’s taking away from the real message, whatever that may be, which lies in between the margins.

becomingly Rating: 2/5 stars

*I would never give this book to a child. But for all intents and purposes this book, in Stephen King terms, seems rather tame.

**For a book to be upwards of 1,200 pages you’d assume more would actually happen.

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