King, Stephen. The Stand. (Complete & uncut edition)

NY: Doubleday, 1990.

Despite his own protestations that what he purveys is bologna, not literature — high-quality, but still bologna — Stephen King has long been one of the most skillful storytellers the U.S. has produced in at least the past half-century. I’ve read most of his novels and some of them just aren’t to my taste — but that’s okay. Others, especially Fire Starter and The Dead Zone and Needful Things and The Talisman (with Peter Straub), I enjoyed a great deal. But this enormous book (1,100+ pages), a true epic, is, in my own mind, his masterpiece. It’s an expanded version of the book that first appeared a dozen years earlier and includes some four hundred pages that King had been forced to excise at the behest of the publisher’s bean-counters. In other words, this is the whole story that the author originally wrote, not just a pumped-up version of what was really meant to be a shorter book.

And I found nothing he put back in that ought to have remained on the cutting room floor. (I’ve seen numerous reviews by readers who preferred the “original,” shorter version and hated this one. I simply don’t agree.)

The essential plot is an extended riff on the classic “after the holocaust” theme, reminiscent in its atmosphere (at least in the early part) of On the Beach, the first book of this kind that I can remember reading. A series of judgmental errors and mechanical accidents at a secret government biolab in the California desert result in the escape of a strain of extremely lethal “superflu” with a more than 99.5% infection rate. And because it mutates rapidly and continually, there’s no defense against it. Most of the country, and then most of the world, dies, very messily. But there are a few tens of thousands of survivors, thanks to their natural immunity. Where King makes the idea his own, though, is in dividing those survivors into two factions of Good and Evil and setting them at one another in an Armageddon.

The first third of the book is concerned with the original accident, the spread of the disease, and the ensuing collapse of American society, as seen through the eyes and experiences of a number of individuals who gradually run into each other and coalesce into several small bands. The middle third tells of the survivors’ realization that the dreams they all share, of an ancient, guitar-playing, hymn-singing black woman living in a cabin in a corn field in Nebraska are of a real person in a real place — as is the faceless man in black who waits in the West, who drips with blood, and who fills their counterpoint dreams. And each survivor or group chooses a side, depending on the sort of person he or she is, and begins the trek to Nebraska or Nevada. And we watch as the two very different cultures (comprised, however, of not always terribly different people) begin to get themselves organized — the one in the east getting the power back on and holding town meetings, and the one in the west getting the Shrike missiles rearmed. The final third is the clash between the two sides, the toll it takes on both, and the final resolution.

There are a number of episodes in the story that would make very good stand-alone short stories. This is especially true of Trashcan Man’s run-in with The Kid, a marvelously vicious pair of characters. So is the section of reminiscences by Mother Abagail of her appearance at the Grange Hall in 1902. So is the account of Frannie Goldsmith coming to terms with the deaths of her parents and the history behind her reactions to events. So is Lloyd’s and Poke’s trail of death across the Southwest and Lloyd’s subsequent horrific experiences behind bars in Phoenix. So is Stu Redman’s detention at and mind-jangling escape from the medical facility at Stovington. So is Nick Andros’s stay in a small-town Arkansas sheriff’s office and how he went from semi-prisoner to deputy overnight. So is Larry Underwood’s struggle to overcome the self-assigned stigma of “You ain’t no nice guy.” So is Nadine’s journey west to the Dark Man. Finally, one of the best extended sequences is the story of the injured Stu’s long, slow return to Boulder through a frigid mountain winter with the loyal assistance of the mildly retarded Tom Cullen. Because this last section takes place after the main denouement of the novel, one would expect it to be badly anticlimactic, but King pulls it off — perhaps the only major writer who could. Anyway, those are just the episodes of which I still remembered the outlines from having read the first edition of the book about thirty years ago. Even though the story would have to be somewhat different in its details if it were written today, with personal computers and cell phones and terrorists, still I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Published in: on 19 December 2010 at 2:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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