The Stand (1978/1990) is the great-grand-daddy of modern post-Apocalyptic literature. Even when it was first published, the end of the world was old news, just ask John "Triffid" Wyndham or Charles Eric Maine. But time and enthusiasm have steered The Stand into pole position.
And why not? The Stand serves as the template for this particular sub-genre, the tell-tale signs of which include:
- Big disaster (gov'mint caused)
- Survey of "ordinary people", prior to their transformation by extraordinary times
- Moral bipolarisation of the surviving populace
- Christian eschatology
- World re-building
- Crap ending
If you've spotted all those in your book - congratulations! You're looking at some offshoot of The Stand (that includes you, Mr. Cronin).
The Stand is also responsible for the sheer size of this genre, not in contributors, but in page count. According to industry standards, unless the Apocalypses is 800 pages, it simply isn't worth writing about. (In contrast, The Book of Revelation prints out to 17 sheets of A4.) In The Stand, the vast bulk of the juggernaut takes place in two of the bulleted points above: introducing all the ordinary people and world re-building.
Character portraits have long been the author's strong suit and one of the major factors in Mr. King's success as a horror writer. Like in his Castle Rock series (and his recent Under the Dome), a large portion of The Stand's entertainment value comes from a voyeuristic intrusion into his character's lives.
Stu is an East Texan layabout, Nick is a deaf-mute wanderer, Lloyd is a serial killer, Frannie is a WOMAN (more on that later) and Larry is a mediocre rock star. They've all got problems - Stu's going nowhere, Nick's being bullied, Lloyd is under arrest, Frannie is pregnant ('cause she's a WOMAN) and Larry is a dick. The advent of the gov'mint-created plague that wipes out 99% of humanity is a huge disruption to their lives. Stu was busy doing nothing, Nick was just making some friends, Lloyd was in prison, Frannie was disappointing her mother ('cause she's a WOMAN) and Larry was shagging an oral hygenist.
If you found the above paragraph repetitive, imagine it extended to 300 pages. Anyone that ever brags that they read sf to escape kitchen-sink lit-fic should be reminded of the endless scenes of thirty-something Larry whinging to his elderly mom.
Frannie is particularly noteworthy because she's a WOMAN. Defined initially by her accidental pregnancy and the ensuing familial fallout, her presence over the interminable length of The Stand is largely reduced to tears and being a sex object. In short, she cries a lot and (despite that) men want her. Her tear-stained, love-worthy presence damply infuses the first two-thirds of the book until Mother Abigail, clearly exhausted with her, tells her to go home and stay there. The menfolk then set about doing the real work of battling evil. (However awful Franny is, the secondary female character, Nadine, is a hundred times worse. She doesn't even have the tears. People want to sex her, occasionally she sexes them, then she sexes the bad guy and then she dies. Let that be a lesson to you, kids - don't be a woman.)
It isn't that these prolonged introductions aren't enjoyable (well - not Franny & Nadine, they're awful). Again, one of Mr. King's strengths is the ability to juggle multiple characters while maintaining their individual identities (a strength that mysteriously disappears in the final third of the book, when everyone becomes blandly interchangeable). Especially in the extended, unabridged version of The Stand, the reader spends a lot of time getting to know the cast - and not actually minding it at all.
If we, the reader, can understand and empathise with the mundane drama of a half-dozen people, then we can infer the drama of seven billion. And then, when we watch the same half-dozen struggle through their post-Apocalyptic lives, we can start to grasp the drama of the other, unchronicled survivors (substantially less than seven billion). This is the gift of a good horror writer - making you care enough about a fictional character that their untimely & disgusting death doesn't just elicit a visceral response, but an emotional one as well.
To be continued... the second half is here.