The Stand (Stephen King)
The Stand, one of Stephen King's most popular books, is a post-apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil insert into the otherwise more methodical premise of a world rebuilding after immense catastrophe. After a gripping opening act that I couldn't put down, the book stagnated and it took a very long time for me to trudge through all one thousand one hundred and forty one pages of the expanded and revised edition. There are quite a few reasons for this, such as the increasingly ridiculous "divine intervention" that the plot started pushing, the characters that fell apart on closer inspection, and a surprisingly anticlimactic conclusion. An ambitious book that doesn't quite live up to its lofty premise, The Stand definitely has its moments of astounding vision, but too often falls into a very repetitive pattern.
The Stand opens with a phenomenal portrayal of a world gone bad. While it isn't the most realistic apocalypse scenario you will ever see (only the briefest of mention of countries outside the U.S. and a very lukewarm imagining of the government's reaction to the crisis) the opening act of The Stand still presents a harrowing, gruesome series of events culminating in the end of modern civilization. Juggling five different characters, including Flagg, the epitome of evil and his machinations as he walks the roads of the Western United States, Act I works wonderfully to start the book out right and introduce the important characters.
In the second act, The Stand gravitates away from what made it successful to this point. The exciting chain of events that lead to an abandoned and beaten down world have ended, and now the survivors have to pick up the pieces. A strange series of dreams prompts the survivors to head towards Nebraska, where an ancient black woman will guide them to their fate, while the forces of darkness gather in Nevada. The journey from the north east to the Midwest makes for some of the most boring segments of the whole book. Long periods of tiresome traveling, then civilization rebuilding, ensue. New characters are introduced with little context, and outside of the evil characters, this entire segment is incredibly boring. There are some important developments, but the pace is totally at odds with the first act, slowing everything down to a crawl and altering the tone of the book. I also didn't like the fact that many of the events in this part were pre ordained, with our characters acting not on free will but on spiritual command. Even the culminating quest to destroy Flagg is a mission from God and not something that our heroes decided was in their best interest.
The third act is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. Four members of the "good" faction, now based in Boulder Colorado, are tasked with destroying the dark man and his minions once and for all. This part is once again a major shift in the book's scope and pacing, moving events along much faster and focusing almost entirely on the four men and their quest to cross the Rockies to defeat the master of evil. I liked this concluding act, though the actual clash between good and evil is more symbolic than climactic, with a bare minimum of action to finish off the antagonists. A controversial change added in the expanded edition does cheapen our heroes' sacrifice a bit, but for a book so heavy on imagery and symbolism, it isn't a terrible addition. Overall this story is one part bad, two parts good, and all parts disjointed.
This book isn't sure of what it wants to be, and that seems to contribute to both the bloated page count and generally scattershot narrative. The first act feels totally at odds with the other two. Mysticism is at a near nonexistent point, and the focus is more on crumbling societies than some hokey good vs. evil mega battle that even the characters refer to as being unbelievable. In trying to do so many different things, The Stand manages to do none of them well on a consistent basis.
There is a huge cast of characters at work in The Stand on both sides of the line, but unfortunately the cast grows exponentially during the second act and the result is that very few characters outside of the initially introduced five or six have any depth. The book initially follows Stu Redman (a man from East Texas who is among the first to come in contact with the flu,) Frannie Goldsmith (a pregnant young adult from Maine with major mom issues,) Larry Underwood (a perennially underachieving musician from New York,) and Nick Andros (a deaf-mute wanderer.) These characters are featured quite heavily during the book's opening act and as a result we come to know them fairly well. Each of them has a richly defined back story and plenty of relatable faults and ideals, and their quests are varied enough to keep them from feeling redundant. For everyone of them except Larry, the problem is that they actually get less interesting as time goes by, changing little and filling generic roles in the story when they should be blossoming in their new roles and environs.
The characters each pick up one additional companion early on, and these people are well defined too. Stu finds Glen Bateman, a cynical sociologist, Frannie travels with her neighbor, Harold Lauder, Larry meets Nadine and a wild boy, and Nick finds Tom, a mentally disabled man. The sidekicks are fleshed out well too, developing into crucial characters in their own right, and Nadine and Harold undergo dramatic and compelling moral shifts over the course of the book, being two of a very small number of characters to truly change during the novel (the only other coming to mind is Larry.) The problem is that there is a slew of tertiary characters that end up being mentioned a lot and barely developed. The worst of these is Ralph, a character with no personality that actually ends up going on the big quest at the end. This character being included among the most important is rather surprising considering he did little of importance and had no depth whatsoever.
The "evil" members of the cast fare much better. Despite being one dimensional, these characters and their disorders are written so well that it is impossible not to elicit some emotion from their presence. Flagg couldn't have had a better introduction and is certainly a powerful force, while his henchmen like the pyromaniac Trashcan Man or erstwhile helper and former convict Lloyd are petty but very chilling.
King is at his best writing this book when focusing on short vignettes and the cast of "evil" characters. The vignettes, most of which take place in the first four hundred pages or so, are short and simple ways to advance the plot while providing entertaining reads in their own right. Most of them detail the further crumbling of society, jumping around the country to one-off characters and giving the pacing a much needed boost. These quick segments do more for the book than twenty five pages of watching our hapless heroes wander about aimlessly in Vermont or Maine or wherever, and it is a shame that this style is used less as the story progresses.
As for the villains, horror has always been King's strong suit, and this book is no exception. He revels in crafting a diabolical figure in Flagg, with his introduction numbering among the very best scenes of the entire book, while the side characters for the forces of darkness are dealt with in a completely different but equally effective way, capitalizing on each character's insanity and doing a great job of using a unique voice for each of them. These scenes build a menacing aura around Vegas and the society of misfits contained therein, doing a great service to both the setting and the characters.
Unfortunately, while the cast of villains is exquisitely crafted (with just one excessive, grotesque and outright unnecessary scene,) scenes featuring the protagonists are comparatively lackluster in terms of tone and writing quality. King doesn't bring any of the menace and mania to these scenes, which is quite understandable, but nor does he seek to define them in any way. This contributes to the blandness of many of the important supporting characters, and a very difficult read as these scenes greatly outnumber their evil counterparts. Many of the scenes concerning the heroes, in particular the dreadful love scenes, feel like a poorly written soap opera.
The Stand is a critically acclaimed book that I just didn't care for. With underdeveloped protagonists, choppy pacing, and a tedious second act, The Stand is a bloated mess with a handful of strong scenes and a fantastic premise. Considering the fact that average readers will take weeks, if not a month to get through this book, during which time they could be reading some of Mr. King's shorter and more enjoyable work, I can't recommend it at all.