There are books, and there are books. That is, there are phone directories and there are epic tomes stuffed full of exquisitely crafted text and dutiful tales. And to be clear from the off, The Stand is no phone directory, although the sheer dominance of space it occupies on the bookshelf might make you think otherwise. So what it is about Stephen King’s 1978 horror novel that makes it places it head and shoulders above so many horror books across the decades? Let’s see.
A viral outbreak decimates mankind. Sound familiar, right? In fact just writing those words there makes me think of how clichéd it sounds. How many books, both inside and outside of top 10 lists in the genre have such a summation, either upon their cover, or on press releases issues by marketing departments? Many, I’m quite sure.
But it’s King’s handling of that oh so curious of post-apocalyptic subjects that makes for some at times inspirational, at others horrifying, at others heart-warming, but always guaranteed eye-grabbing and page-turning reading. It’s a book of societal study and intrigue, from a fictional but sturdy analysis of those forces that govern and rule, of law – social and court-house-based – and of religion and spirituality. It’s about the macro and the micro (literally at times) but above all it’s about King weaving a damn fine story.
From the opening chapters as we read of the outbreak and spread of the virus Captain Trips; the tale unfolding is a harrowing one. Death has visited upon humanity and the costs are truly cataclysmic. Millions die. The survival rate - around 0.6% of the populace – is as microscopic as the tools within laboratories that created this super-bug. We see the human, up-close and personal, effects on people. Their families, friends, communities, decimated.
It’s the individuals with whom King has performed a most fastidious task of realising in a manner rarely done in a novel. From bumbling and immature teenager, the soon to be realised dangerous and contemptible Harold Lauder, to the noble and brave Stu Redman; from arsonist and simpleton Trashman to the so many characters whose natures encompass so many shades of white and grey.
And soon it becomes apparent that with almost binary precision two groups of people are forming. To call them the goodies and baddies wouldn’t be inaccurate. These groups are led by two legendary figures – the wise and loving, century-old (and a few years more) Mother Abigail inspires through dreams the grouping of people who will ultimately gather in Boulder, Colorado. The evil, controlling and conspiring Randall Flag utilises his supernatural powers to create a surreally harmonious and highly effective but brutal society in Las Vegas. And from here the same pitfalls and aggravations that seem to bother all societies at some time and point begin to manifest – or are actively nurtured – and things really do become quite pear shaped.
I want to go into more specifics when writing this review – to talk about characters and personalities – but find that doing so would invoke my no-serious spoiler take on my reviews. And even to touch on certain smaller things would seem disingenuous. So, as I draw this review to a close let me add that the characters here are most excellent. As is the atmosphere. That too is filled with, and fuelled by, uncertainty and a definite air of dread. That’s not to say things are without hope – but in such as a world as that of The Stand, hope is a commodity that’s all too often threatened by fear and desperation.
The Stand is a stellar novel. That it’s a horror, apocalyptic and supernatural epic is mere consequence. This tale of loss, redemption, destruction and creation is at times horrific, but at others it’s beautiful and creational. It’s a definite must read for anyone I think, and especially anyone with a fascination for the more dread-filled literature genre.