The Literature of Ideas; or, please stop laughing at me
Monsters & Mullets: The Neverending Story (1984)

Underground Reading: The Stand by Stephen King (Part 2)

[This is the second half of our review of Stephen King's post-Apocalyptic epic, The Stand. In unintentional homage to the book, this review is as meandering as possible, with a hastily-added and unfulfilling conclusion. The first half is here.]

The StandBy the time the introductory portion of the book is complete, all the character portraits have been painted, dried, retouched, varnished and framed. The major characters have split into two factions: the Bad Guys (like Lloyd and Nadine) follow Flagg, Mr. King's antichrist figure. The Good Guys (like Stu, Nick and Larry) go to Mother Abigail, who is the Jesus figure. The Bad Guys go to Vegas, the Good Guys go to Boulder.

Why? Well, Vegas is a mere press of a button away from re-activation, whilst Boulder needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. 

If the first section of the book is dominated by aimless wandering and internal monologues, the second is devoted to committee meetings and corpse collection. Although The Stand never reaches the same unhealthy obsession with agriculture that Swan Song and The Passage both do, it certainly takes the cake when it comes to thinly-disguised sociological lecturing. (Mr. King is also a fan of John D. MacDonald, and it is hard not to see shades of JDM's Meyer in Mr. King's Glen.) Our handful of characters are suddenly responsible for an entire community of survivors, and the reader is with them, every bureaucratic step of the way.

And, again, I admittedly find this fascinating. World building in space (sorry, Kim Stanley Robinson) leaves me cold. But I could read about survivors scrambling for canned food for hours (and, in Mr. King's case, days). With a nod of the head to something Peter Hamilton said at SFX, it is about "possibility vs probability". Even with the ludicrous amounts of detail that hard sf provides, I find domes on Mars to be a possibility for the future, but rebuilding on Earth due to volcanos of plague-Triffids could happen tomorrow. If post-apocalyptic fiction is written well enough, I'll reflexively start shopping for canned goods. That's what makes The Stand (ostensibly) horror - it could happen right... now!

So if the bulk of The Stand is character profiles and world re-building, both of which I'm happy to be indulged in, where does it go wrong? The major issue, of course, is the final bullet point from the previous review: the crappy ending. [If you've not read The Stand, this is where you should leave. Bye!]

Mr. King's inclusion of the supernatural has always been his weak spot, but he's never been more frustrating than with The Stand.

First, it is important to note that at no point do the characters control their own destiny. The Good Guys may blunder about randomly at first, but Mother Abigail is introduced with the tacit assumption that our heroes wind up at her side. And, once they do, there is a blase acceptance of the supernatural and Mother Abigail's sovereignity. The characters' authority, already watered down, is further titrated by Mother Abigail's role as a cut-out - she's merely passing on instructions from GOD.

The Stand Occasionally, GOD sends his memoes in other ways - there's a magic dog, for example. The Good Guys stumble on the realisation that Tom, a mentally-challenged member of the Good Guy ranks, talks with GOD's voice when he's hypnotized. This is something they could do a dozen times a day, but they never do it again. The characters are possessed with an inhuman compliance with their role as pawns. Our fate, they agree, is completely out of hands. Let's not poke about trying to do anything ourselves.

It builds to a maddening crescendo when Mother Abigail orders four men to walk across the country and deliver themselves to the enemy. The first question isn't, "Are you mad?" but "Can we take food?" (The answer, of course, is "no". GOD's all about inexplicable discomfort.)

Good is dumb, but Evil is farcical. Whilst the Boulder crew has spent the entire book getting the lights on, Flagg's had electricity since Day 1. He's been busily arming his men with deadlier and deadlier weapons, preparing for war. Yet, Flagg, once uncontested by Mother Abigail (who spends most of the book absent and/or dead), manages to drop the ball on every count - probably because, even though he represents captial-F-Fascism, he still gives his minions more free will. 

In fact, the sheer goofiness of Evil is what makes the ending so pathetic. Flagg loses his temper with a disloyal minion and zaps him with teh magics. Unfortunately, his zap "lingers in the air" and grows into "the hand of God" (never explained, don't ask). When another of Flagg's minions, the Trashcan Man putters into town square with a live nuke, the "hand" slaps the nuke and... kablooie. Good wins. (Nevada loses.)

Who has a role in the above encounter?

  • Evil Minion A
  • Flagg
  • The Trashcan Man
  • Magic Zap (via Flagg - well done, sir!)

Conspicuous by their absence? The Good Guys. Two of them - Larry and Ralph - are present, but they're locked in cages, quietly watching this series of pratfalls first-hand. And even their value as witnesses is negligible, since they're immediately atomised with the rest of Las Vegas.

What it comes down to is this: if all the Good Guys had stayed put in Boulder and not done a thing, everything would've wound up exactly the same. Why did Mother Abigail sent four of her champions walking (...without food...) to their deaths? You've got me. Why was it important that the reader follow this batch of heroes for a thousand pages, only for the conclusion to be an Evil own goal? You've got me there too. Of all the characters Mr. King pens in his epic conflict of Good and Evil, exactly two of them (Flagg and the Trashcan Man) made a damn bit of difference. Good might as well have faked a cold and stayed home. 

All cavilling aside, there's simply no questioning the lingering importance of The Stand. It not only defined a certain genre at the time, but, for better or for worse, it continues to cast a long shadow - both in style and substance. I'm almost sorry that I couldn't muster a stronger reaction - either positive or negative. The book is enjoyable in its premise and deeply-detailed set-up, but it becomes far less entertaining as it shambles reluctantly towards an unsatisfactory conclusion. 

The Stand has a sweeping cast of characters - most of whom are interesting, an indulgent (but captivating) attention to detail, cack-handed supernatural elements and a rubbish ending. Above and beyond being the archetype for post-Apocalyptic fiction, it is the archetype for Stephen King.

Tube journeys: Loads.
Format: Kindle - the 1990 edition.