Stephen King - The Stand (Unabridged Version)

It's funny reading reviews of Stephen King books on Amazon. Each one seems to have a cumulative four-and-a-half star rating. This is the result of over 200 five-star reviews countered by seldom less than ten one-star reviews.

Every single five-star review proclaims the book to be a masterpiece and King to be a genius. Each one-star review talks about how they've never read King before “and certainly won't again!” Comments are made on the book's length (always excessive) and, if they're really in the mood for trolling, they hint at how their tastes are too highbrow for King and express no surprise that something so asinine should be so popular.

The real tasty meat, though, is in the comments that accompany these one-star reviews. The best ones attempt to shame King's detractors into submission by hinting that only people who have written novels may criticise them. Most of them, though, sarcastically recommend that the reviewer try something a little more suited to their tastes next time. Enid Blyton was a particularly good recommendation from one disgruntled King fan. Ho, does he have his fans. And his detractors!

Which is why, as most people are surely aware by now, the only reviews of any value on Amazon are those with two and three-stars. They may still have an axe to grind, and they may still be unforgivably snarky, but at least they're a bit more balanced. I prefer “I liked it, but...” to both “OMG MASTERPIECE” and “BURN IN HELL KING”. Acknowledgement of flaws with appreciation of saving graces – that's good criticism. Anything else is tedious and laughable. Just as it's quite impossible for anything to be perfect, it's surely more ridiculous to suggest that something can be so completely devoid of merit.

And that's where I fall when it comes to King. By virtue of his prolific output alone, I do happen to think he's a genius. His imagination seems limitless, his characters often feel like exactly the sort of people with whom you'd enjoy sharing a beer and a natter, and every book of his I've read has been so engaging that I'm tempted to use the old “unputdownable” nugget.

Admittedly, in the landmass of fiction he's crafted I've not even begun to scratch the surface, but still: this year alone I've read over 2,100 pages of his work. I think I may already have graduated from “newcomer”.

2009's Under The Dome formed a large part of this summer's holiday reading. That I really enjoyed, but was bemused by the amount of one-star reviews on Amazon which appeared to have been written by his fans. Ho! They all said that Under The Dome was little more than a lesser version of The Stand.

So I went and read The Stand.

In a way, those who criticised Under The Dome are right: It is a lesser version of The Stand. Under The Dome details the experiences of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. The Stand does the same, but on a much larger scale. That is, an entire continent as opposed to the small town trapped Under The Dome.

Both novels can, to a point, be classed as “experimental” in the Zola sense of the word. A cast of characters is devised to whom pressure is applied. King then explores, almost organically, the ways these people react. At times, it's almost as if he's asking himself – what would happen?

The Stand is a plague novel in which most people die. A lot of the time, even those who survive die. I wasn't surprised to find that it was inspired by George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, which focuses upon the attempts to rebuild society in the wake of apocalypse.

Earth Abides, though, is gentle, elegiac, hopeful. The Stand is brutal. Don't get too attached to anyone, kids. Most of them are going to die, and Stephen's going to do his best to ensure that they die in the worst way possible.

The apocalypse in Earth Abides was neat, almost graceful. All those afflicted with the humanity-negating pandemic were polite enough to die sequestered together.

In The Stand, though, the end of the world feels like the end of the world. Order is lost almost immediately, yet those at the top continue to try, with grim desperation, to cover up the fact that the holocaust was their fault. The results are predictably horrific, and the chapters which detail the downfall of humanity would be gruelling and nauseating were it not obvious that King is taking such delight in telling us about it.

After the plague and the apocalypse comes no small amount of wandering aimlessly in the wilderness and a massive amount of sociological discussion and town planning. It was here that the similarities to Earth Abides were really felt. But, again, King's pandemic had a lot less manners. There're fires, violence, alcoholism, rage, jealousy, terrorism, scandal, intrigue, solipsism and bodies – lots and lots of bodies. The post-apocalyptic landscape in Earth Abides was surprisingly empty in that respect.

And it's at this point that I became convinced that King has a horrible little voice at the back of his mind which screams at him to lace everything he writes with evil. It was a suspicion which first arose when I read L.T.'s Theory of Pets in Everything's Eventual. That was an amusing short story about the steady decline and evaporation of a relationship. But whilst writing it, King must have remembered that he's supposed to be a horror writer. As a result, a serial killer was inserted for no real reason at all, which meant that what could have been a really memorable piece of writing was utterly derailed.

I got the same impression from the latter half of The Stand. Why, in a novel which kills off 99.4% of the human race, did King still feel the need to include the embodiment of evil himself? To spice things up a little?

Yes, Randall Flagg shows up about a quarter of the way through affairs and threatens to ruin everything. He's the devil; evil incarnate; and he wants nothing more than to destroy the survivors of the Project Blue pandemic because...

...well, who cares about motivation, hey?

As villains go, Randall Flagg is unforgivably lazy. Why bother with exposition and motivation when you can just call your antagonist evil-incarnate and be done with it?

If ever a book didn't need an antagonist – or a supernatural element, for that matter – it's The Stand. It's a completely superfluous embellishment to a story which was already equally as horrifying as it was poignant and affecting.

Without Flagg, this book would likely have been worthy of the “masterpiece” tag. It would have been particularly chilling in that mass genocide would have been effected by little more than human arrogance, paranoia and incompetence. It would have been a realistic, believable and, worst of all, plausible document of apocalypse in real time. The latter half would have come across as a grittier Earth Abides. It would have been brilliant.

Instead, though, we get the devil walking the earth performing deeds so evil they're ridiculous. And when things are ridiculous, they're not scary. Similarly, when a villain is without motivation, he's boring.

I'm not quite sure what happened. My theory is that King was getting quite bored by the whole meticulous minute-taking of the Border Free Zone. Having written himself into the corner, he decided to shake things up a bit. That horrible little voice in the back of his head must have piped in - “you need a villain.”

Well, if he wanted a rude interruption to the whole rebuilding society conceit, he could have retained the disaster that springs from Harold Lauder's superiority and jealousy. That, in fact, would have made for an unforgettably powerful explosion of an ending. There would have been marvellous ambiguity, and what is perhaps the most terrifying vignette a horror writer could ever hope to craft – that no matter what happens, we're all doomed to do unspeakable things to each other until we're here no more.

But no. Instead we get a further 500 pages or so of religious crusading against an implausibly evil villain. Has nobody ever told Stephen that it's fine for books to be shorter than 500 pages?

Ultimately, I much preferred Under The Dome to The Stand. Under The Dome might have operated on a smaller scale, but it was much stronger for it. Though King never quite comes across as being out of his depth in The Stand, with Under The Dome it felt like he was completely in control at all times. The action takes place in a sealed microcosm environment, so you're never left wondering what happens everywhere else. In The Stand, for instance, I often wondered why the ultimate battle between good and evil had to take place in America. Surely it should, logically, have taken place within praying distance of the Holy Land?

And, apart from anything else, Under The Dome's protagonist was so believable as to be greatly disturbing. Jim Rennie, the arrogant small-town demagogue with ideas so far above his station that he'll stop at nothing so long as he gets to feel powerful. The real terror was in the realisation that the world's run by people like that.

Randall Flagg, though, can only really inspire terror if you flog yourself before a crucifix every morning.

I suppose my next step would be to enter The Dark Tower territory. I'm put off, though, having learned that Randall Flagg infects its many, many pages. Hasn't he done enough damage already?

But as if that's going to stop me.

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