Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #6: Stephen King's The Stand

The Stand
By Stephen King

Well, I’m back.

At 1138 pages, The Stand is comfortably the longest book I’ve ever read, nudging aside the second-longest, also by Stephen King.  I emerged from it earlier today, parched and bleary-eyed.  What was the last book I read before this?  What's the date?  What year?

“The Stand” is the aftermath of a man-made plague, and it might as well be broken up into three volumes, ala The Lord Of The Rings.  For 300-odd pages it concerns the plague, not-so-affectionately known as “Captain Trips”.  The horrifying superflu spreads from one panicking security guard to pretty well everyone in America.  (The rest of the world soon joins in, thanks to some slithery men in black not wanting the USA to take the blame.  This sequence barely covers a page – perhaps it was a late addition? – and in any case, we never really leave America.)

King has said it was “fun” tearing down society, and given the pace of the rest of the novel it certainly falls apart fast.  Plenty of satirical nightmares are brought to life as the army struggles (pointlessly) to cover it up.  The death toll is virtually everybody; you won’t forget any of it in a hurry.  The horrifying imagination of this section could be a whole novel.  (Though in all honesty, at 300-ish pages, it is.)

The next section is about the survivors.  Some of them die just the same, only later (Captain Trips getting his second wind); some are killed in various grim mishaps; the rest gather their wits and start going… somewhere.  They have nothing to guide them except dreams, either concerning an old (very old) lady in the East, or a spooky “dark man” in the West.  This section is full of dreamy eeriness, as characters pass through deserted places, avoid simple perils and sidestep the dead.  Reading this, it occurred to me how many post-apocalyptic stories I’ve come across, almost all involving zombies.  It’s refreshing to read one where the dead stay dead, and our heroes’ problems stay closer (relatively speaking) to reality.

King deals, in detail, with the simple matters of staying alive and getting places.  I suspect much of the story came about from wondering how people would cope in a worst case scenario.  It’s a satisfying What If in that way, and I enjoyed the grim reality of Captain Trips, plus the harsh reality of surviving it, more than the book's final third.  More on that in a minute.

Being scattered over the country, it takes a while for our heroes to meet.  As with King’s also-elephantine It, you’ve got plenty of time to get attached to them.  Most of them are compelling: there are heroes that grow and conquer considerable flaws, but also villains who agonise over their choices.  (By the end, very few of either are left standing.)  The cast grows exponentially when both groups set up their own towns, and there are some very long chapters devoted to characters I just didn't care for.  Some of these guys are overgrown archetypes; most of the women are (typically?) defined by their sex, either sex-obsessed or sexually victimised or mothers.  Mother Abigail, the Godly figurehead, seems much more symbol than person, even after we hear her generous life story.  And despite seemingly endless effort to big up the villain, Randall Flagg – an ethereal, supernaturally-gifted spawn of Satan – he never struck me as remotely interesting.

King obviously finds him fascinating: he crops up in later works, particularly The Dark Tower series.  Flagg seemed to me like a mess of all-powerful ideas and weird, kooky details.  He’s boringly persuasive and omnipotent, until the plot (and presumably, God) requires him not to be.  Which leads to a wider point: much like Homer, if it’s all ultimately up to the gods, with characters getting psychic visions as to where it’s all going, they all seem a bit impotent.  Since, in fiction, it’s always up to the gods – i.e. the writer – it seems like cheating to have that in the actual plot.  (That said, King is a big fan of foreshadowing.  For me, Carrie was ruined by spending its entire length telling me how it ended.)  Anyway, I often wondered what Flagg could accomplish that would, all told, be genuinely worse than an apocalyptic superflu.

It all comes down to good vs. evil (personified as bluntly as possible by Abigail and Flagg), and it is eventually quite satisfying.  However, with its Godly messages, religious quests and explosive finale, it seems like a million miles from the realistic, satisfying What If that germinated the story.  While the story certainly evolves as it goes along, I wonder if it lost something.

My copy is the extended 1990 edition, with 400 pages put back in, and it takes a hell of a long time to get anywhere.  (Also my edition – a battered TV-movie tie-in – is replete with typos.  The best one is “minges”.)  The good moments are couched in sheer, gratuitous length, and unlike It – a not-really-relevant comparison, I know – I didn’t feel very much closure at the end.  Our heroes' fate is happy (at least those who made it), but it's totally open to future miseries.  Because hey, it's a cautionary tale: cue an outrageous moral finger-wagging right at the close.  I wish that bit hadn't made the cut.  If your point hasn’t sunk in by page 1130-something, can very much be achieved with an epilogue?

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