From the Archives: The Stand by Stephen King
Years ago, I attempted to read all of Stephen King's books in order and blog about them. I eventually gave up because there are just too many. Below is one of the posts I wrote.
Original Review from January 3, 2015:
The Stand showed me just how faulty our memories can be. This is my third time
through the book, and while several complete scenes shine in my memory, I know
now they are just a handful of dim stars peeking out between the clouds in the
night. Tiny pinpricks that represent only a fraction of the expanse that is
King’s The Stand. Before reading, I remembered about half of the main
characters, the larger strokes of the plot and a couple random scenes like
Mother Abigail eating peanut butter or Harold staking out his claim on Frannie
(and failing). When I reentered the world of the Stand, I thought I knew what I
was in for.
I plowed through this book over the course of four days during the Christmas holidays. It had been a long time since I'd had the time to lose myself in a book so thoroughly. Ordinarily, I'm constantly on the go and can only read in snatches during lunch or before bed. But The Stand required more of me; this book is monumental.
King is known for his long books and The Stand is one of the longest. The original was published in 1979 and when King wanted to publish it, he was told it was too large and had to cut it down. Later on, in 1990, King republished it with the missing parts added back in and some updates to his pop culture references. For this project, I chose to read the unabridged now and I'll skip the abridged (I have read both before). The differences are circumstantial to the overarching plot and themes and I doubt there would be enough fuel for two posts.
The basics of the story are: a superflu kills almost everyone in the world and the American survivors are then drawn either to Randall Flagg or Mother Abigail to square off in a battle between "good" and "evil" to decide the fate of the world - or at least America. However, the reality of the story is more complicated than that. Our good guys aren't necessarily that "good". While Stu, Nick, Lucy, and Tom are what I would call “good”, Larry is, in his own words, "not a nice guy". He is weak an selfish. Frannie doesn't do anything terrible, but she writes cruel, nasty things about Harold who is flawed, but has worked hard to take care of her.
Also, some of our “bad” guys have redeeming or endearing qualities. I found Harold equal parts repulsive and pitiable. A few different turns in his life and he might not have turned out the way he did. King also gives us one of the best villains/heroes ever in the form of Trashcan Man. Man, I love that psycho.
I used to think this story was about fate vs. free will, but I think it's more about the basic nature of individuals and the consequences of the choices they make. The superflu forces our characters to examine their true selves in the face of a great catastrophe. With society gone, they are robbed of the ability to just bury themselves in the everyday and forget. They have to choose - either Flagg or Abigail. Darkness or Light.
This decision is personified in the figure of Nadine. Nadine Cross has been marked by Flagg to be his bride. She has somehow known this since she was a young woman and has been saving her virginity for him. Often it is difficult to tell what she really wants. She keeps herself virginal, as per Flagg's request, but also consistently seeks out temptation. I'm not sure if this is a perverse way of testing herself or if she does want to escape Flagg, but lacks the guts to see it through. She behaves as though the choice is out of her hands because she was claimed by Flagg before she even knew what that meant, but she still chooses to wait for him and to go to him.
Nadine's relationships with Harold and Larry are where her conflicting wants are made manifest. Larry loves and desires her, but she resists him until he's in love with Lucy and will reject her. She presents herself to him, telling herself she has chosen to go against Flagg, finally, but she deliberately waits until she knows that Larry will say no. The only true agency she shows comes after she goes to Flagg and has already sacrificed her beliefs and her soul. Nadine resembles Hamlet, refusing to make her decision until the last possible moment as if she is hoping that the choice will be taken from her.
She then turns to Harold, another character on the brink. Harold tried to be good, but his suspicious and jealous nature are what do him in. Convinced that everyone is "out to get him", he trusts no one. He purports to love Frannie, but treats her as a possession and not a woman capable of making her own choices. Yes, what she wrote in her diary was mean, but Harold should not have been reading that and his reaction to it was all his own. When Nadine comes to Harold, he accepts a relationship with her. Larry rejected her and stayed with the good guys under Mother Abigail, but Harold, who was already slipping, cemented his fall by taking up with Nadine.
Here's your spoiler warning.
The last thing I want to talk about is the end of the book and the role of our heroes.They may form the bulk of the narrative, but they are inconsequential to the battle between good and evil, but don't tell them that! Some of them sacrifice their lives for the ending of the book. It's like Indiana Jones fighting the Nazis for the Ark of the Covenant when he could have done nothing and they still would have died on their own - maybe even taking Hitler with them! The true hero who defeats the villain and stops the coming war? Trashcan Man. Trashcan Man is pyromaniac always on a quest for his next explosion. After some of Flagg's men tease him, he flips and sabotages their equipment, killing Flagg's precious pilots. I think the men were just trying to joke with Trash, but with his history of abuse and ridicule, he cannot take it - especially when they hit upon one of his trigger phrases. Then, because he knows Flagg will be angry, he heads off to seek his redemption, which comes in the form of a nuclear warhead. He brings his prize to Flagg, hoping to earn back his good graces, but instead the bomb goes off and destroys all the bad guys. Trashcan Man sabotages Flagg and then destroys him with a bomb. What do our heroes do?
Not a whole lot. They contemplate the nature of humanity and what makes them the "good guys". They focus on rebuilding society and the fairest way to govern (even though they rig the election). Then they select three spies to go to Flagg, two of which are killed and the third makes it home, but after the bomb has gone off, rendering any information he might have gathered moot. The spies were pointless and accomplished nothing.
The other pointless venture is four of our main characters have to walk to Flagg's camp at the end as some sort of Biblical sacrifice and their adventure, too, is pointless. One of them survives by breaking his leg and hooking up with the one spy who did not die. Neither one would have survived without the other, but neither one of them really had to go. The other sacrificial heroes die in the nuclear blast.. There is some thin justification for all this in that their presence distracts Flagg and brings everyone to one place, but it's a nuclear bomb set off by the hand of God. I think they still would have died without the heroes joining them.
Even with the ending not holding up to close scrutiny, this book is still an achievement. Many critics herald it as King's best work and while I do think it's some of his better work, I think the more recent 11/22/63 is much better. And not just because it has time travel. I think every King fan needs to read at least the abridged version of The Stand.