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Review of The Stand by Stephen King

I finished reading this book today, a mere four weeks after I was lent it by a chap in my roleplaying group. It’s a book I’ve thought about buying in the past, if for no other reason than it’s absolutely massive: over 1,400 pages.

The first third of the book was very good indeed, and dealt with the outbreak of a lethal manmade virus that kills off over 99% of the population. The superflu’s spread and society’s reaction to it seemed acutely depicted; the reaction of the army was grim and brutal, but scarily believable, too. The lives of the protagonists are engagingly drawn (apart from a young female character who was somewhat annoying).

Unfortunately, the remainder of the novel doesn’t live up to the promise of its opening segment. To begin with my most minor criticism, King often uses the technique of flagging up a character’s future. What I mean is, the narrative will say things like, ‘And that was the last time they ever saw him.’ To be fair, these comments are often deliberately misdirecting, but that doesn’t detract from how irritating they are.

The ultimate bad guy turns up partway through the story and was never particularly effective as an antagonist. The author seemed to want to portray him both as the epitome of evil and as a sympathetic character, but the combination of mundane and supernatural didn’t work for me.

What also didn’t work too well was the symbolic good guy figure who is treated by both the characters and the author as a prophetess. The growing religious overtones detracted from the book’s effect: the complex struggle for survival is overpowered by the simplistic struggle of good against evil.

The climax of the story was fairly bizarre. Without wanting to give too much away, the antagonist essentially defeats himself by accident. There seemed no real reason for this – one of the characters mentions ‘the hand of God’, but it could more accurately be put: ‘the hand of the author.’ This climactic scene doesn’t quite signal the end of the narrative, either: there’s a coda, somewhat reminiscent of the scourging of the Shire from The Lord of the Rings (which isn’t a surprise, given King’s love of that story).

My criticisms of The Stand could also be seen as criticisms of the horror genre. The idea of evil within a fantasy setting makes sense to me because in a fantasy world everything is different, but in the real world (of course, no novel is set in the real real world, but the close imitation of it creates an inevitable identification of the fictional and actual real worlds), in the ‘real’ world there is no such thing as evil, merely people’s actions and our interpretations of those actions.

Finally, the novel got more and more preachy as it progressed. Towards the end, the characters muse on the stockpiles of weapons that have been left behind by the army and on the research centres that developed the superflu virus. I suppose this anti-military sentiment is noble enough, but I find such thinking to be rather naive. As with the good vs evil debate, the real world is painted in shades of grey.

Having said all of that, I can’t deny that, for the most part, The Stand is well-written and entertaining; but it has its flaws – and when a book is this long, those flaws become more and more grating.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
  1. 8 July 2007 at 6:59 pm

    King became a victim of his initial success–a similar thing has happened to J.K. Rowling. Their tremendous sales meant that they no longer had to submit to strict editing and as a result their works become bloated, meandering, undisciplined. Success on that scale means that an author doesn’t have to get better with every work, improve their skills, raising the bar. Thus a promising career (and I would argue that King’s THE SHINING is a successful work of literature as well as genre writing) is derailed by fame and fortune.

  2. 8 July 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Well, yes. Robert Jordan also comes to mind. Strangely, I’ve always had a penchant for oversized books.

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