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The “complete and uncut” version of Stephen King’s “The Stand” is quite possibly the single longest book I have ever read. My paperback version amounted to very nearly 1,500 pages (punctuated by the occasional illustration which didn’t serve to add very much to the story for me!) which, even at my relatively fast reading pace and frequency, takes a fair while to plow through. Luckily I was in the midst of exams whilst reading it so I was often in need of the distraction!
I’m relatively late to King’s books, but remembered vaguely reading “The Stand” as a teenager and had always been curious to read it again. It’s hard to give a brief summary of the plot of a book this long, but thankfully the tale is fairly linear in structure. Somewhere in the American desert in 1990, in a secret Government research installation, a deadly virus which comes to be known as “superflu” or “Captain Trips” escapes into the population. The effects are devastating, with almost the entire population of the States (and by implication the world) killed. But some people, for unknown reasons, appear to be immune. These lucky – or perhaps unlucky – people find themselves having strange dreams, some of an old woman in Nebraska who calls herself Mother Abigail, and others of a strange and evil person known as the Dark Man or the Walkin’ Dude. Some of the survivors find themselves drawn to the sanctity of Mother Abigail, others to Las Vegas where the Dark Man resides. The novel follows several of the survivors as they make their way to their destinations, and describes the battle between good and evil that follows.
In a nutshell, that’s the book. It’s about the build up to a simple fight between good and evil, perhaps God and Satan and the threat of Armageddon itself. The way the survivors pool into two camps ready for the final confrontation draws directly from such religious symbolism and as such the idea of the book is not particularly original or revolutionary, but the focus is much more on the disease and the progress of the survivors rather than the battle itself. Without wishing to give too much away, when the dénouement comes, it all seems to be over remarkably quickly, especially since we’ve spent over a thousand pages in anticipation of it.
What is remarkable is the clever use of the man-made disease as the catalyst for wiping out the population, and the intricate development of character and location King uses throughout. In a preface to the book, he explains that the abridged version had to lose some of this development which, whilst not detracting from the plot, would have compromised the atmosphere considerably. As each chapter for the first part of the book focuses on a different character as they progress towards Nebraska or Las Vegas, either alone or in a small group, we get plenty of time to see the development of each character, such that by the time we visit them again a few chapters later we are keen to know what will befall them. Cleverly, there are not too many principal characters that we become easily confused, but not too few that we become over-familiar. Each is lovingly portrayed to the reader – the relationship between simpleton Tom and deaf-mute Nick Andros is particularly touching; hard-nosed musician Larry suddenly finds himself having to deal with serious responsibilities for the first time; Stu Redman goes from beer swilling redneck to leader of the forces of good and husband and father. Each character is not just on a physical journey, but also perhaps a spiritual and personal one. Even the “evil” characters are often presented with affection – the ‘Trashcan Man’ delights in setting things on fire but as we learn of his childhood suffering we cannot help but sympathise; ditto teenager Harold whose crush on neighbour Fran turns to murderous hatred when her relationship with Stu develops, but the signs that Harold is not totally without redemption are always maintained.
Also wonderful is the sense of location – the heat of the desert, the desolation of a deserted New York City, the homeliness of Mother Abigail’s house. In the midst of the devastation caused by the plague, the rebuilding of community comes over as an important focus – we share the character’s fear that the children born to the survivors will contract the virus on birth as well. But also crucial is the fact that the book presents to us the world we know in a whole new light, forcing you to imagine just how you might cope if everything you took for granted was suddenly ripped away and yet you yourself were left alone to cope. It is a daunting and quite frightening prospect.
If you are put off by King as a “horror” writer, then I would advise you still to give this a try. It is not gory or out-and-out “let’s make you jump”. Some parts are indeed chilling, particularly when dealing with the Dark Man and his allies, and some of the writing conjures up thoughts which may be depressing and unsettling, such as the loss of family and friends and the fear of isolation. But it is not slasher horror or simply gruesome for gruesome’s sake – though there are one or two slightly stomach-churning descriptions of cities littered with corpses.
The massive attention to detail that King has in his descriptions probably won’t appeal to everyone as it can make parts of the book flow quite slowly. And a book of this magnitude is certainly a daunting prospect for all but the most voracious reader. But it is well worth persevering through the slower moments, even though the rapid conclusion may leave you feeling a trifle deflated. In part, that reflects the desire simply to know what happened next, which can be seen as a massive positive. When it comes to it, this is a stunning tale of the human spirit, determination in the face of utter annihilation and the power of love.
Stephen King – The Stand (Complete and Uncut): available from amazon.co.uk for around £7 - £8, 1,440 pages (paperback).
tried and gave up, will try again when i have a spare couple of months lol
kelly642 10.11.2007 06:39
great review took me weeks to finish it
lazuli77 12.09.2004 00:24
I have to give Mr. Kind a go some day. I read one of Barbara Erskine's book one time...it seemed innocent at first but it turned out to be horroe. By then I was hooked to the story. Wonder if you read any of her books Drooboy?