Stephen King’s The Stand, an epic, sweeping tale the destruction of civilization due to a secretly-engineered super virus and the struggle for survival afterwards, was first published in 1978. It’s a big book; the Complete and Uncut edition, published in 1990, runs over a thousand pages,more than three hundred of them cut from the original edition. King’s novel is an incredible adventure. After three books dealing with a girl with special powers, vampires, and a haunted hotel, The Stand is a novel filled with human horror — government labs, weapons of mass destruction, and good ole human error.
And it’s incredibly ambitious. Part one, titled “Captain Trips,” gives readers an intricate, in-depth look at the fall of America through the eyes of several characters. The novel is an ensemble and King spends the first few chapters, before the shit hits the fan, giving us a glimpse into the normal lives of our main characters. It’s a very brief glimpse, but just long enough to see the destruction left by the super-flu. And when Captain Trips hits hard, we see characters lose friends and family and neighbors. We see their lives get turned upside down. With the novel’s giant scope, it’s these small, intimate stories centered around the main characters that give The Stand its emotional power.
There are a lot of memorable characters in The Stand. There’s the quiet everyman Stuart Redman whose time spent at Stovington Plague Center is chilling and unforgettable. There’s Nick Andros, deaf and mute, whose friendship with Tom Cullen is charming and magical. There’s Larry Underwood, a down-on-his-luck young singer whose song, “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man” haunts the rest of the novel like the Ghost of Civilizations Past. But then there are also the bad guys, such as the Trashcan Man (“Hey Trashy, what did old lady Semple say when you torched her pension check?”), whose fondness for fire unintentionally brings about the climax of the story. Or Harold Lauder, a shy, overweight young man with low self-esteem who gets seduced to the dark side and pays for it with his life.
But one of the more interesting things about the novel, at least in its first part, is the few times King takes a step away from the more intimate character stories, and expands the scope by detailing the destruction of America with the American population’s expanding realization that Captain Trips is much more serious than anyone first imagined. One chapter sweeps across the country following Captain Trips as it is passed from person to person. Another chapter details the deaths caused not by Captain Trips, but by injuries that a collapsed civilization could not treat (“those ole emergency room blues”). There are chapters dedicated to civil unrest, the media’s struggle to reveal important information, and the military’s increasingly aggressive response to everything.
But again – this is a long novel. With a book this long, you take the good with the bad. After King destroys America, the second half really slows down as the characters, scattered across America, slowly find their way to Boulder, Colorado where their dreams tell of a mysterious woman named Mother Abigail who promises a safe place. And people like to make fun of Stephen King for his endings, but the end of The Stand really is a weak point. It is so rushed that it does feel like King had had enough of writing the novel (it took him two years)and just decided to end it.
But the book is a surprisingly smooth ride. If one wants to read it, one has to take the plunge and make this book your friend because it will be by your side for the foreseeable future.