Well, it's been a long summer. Okay, that's not true. This summer has flown by. Really, I can't believe it's September already, nor can I believe it took me almost a full extra month beyond the official end of the Standalong to finish what is, arguably, Stephen King's most ambitious, most famous novel. Since it's taken up so much of my time this summer, and book reviews have been at a premium around here, I'm going to attempt to write a legitimate review of it, but if you did the Standalong and you just want to check out my second half reactions, there's bullet points at the bottom of the post!
It's the early 1990s and something deadly and manmade has been unleashed upon the world. A plague sweeps across the U.S. killing off a large portion of the population causing chaos among the living. Soon only a seeming few far-flung survivors remain, and it becomes apparent that the killer flu isn't the only issue at hand. Survivors find themselves haunted by dreams of a dark man who has no face but is inutterably terrifying. Some survivors dream of an elderly black woman who seems to offer a refuge from the dark power lurking in the west. Little do the unfortunate survivors of the plague know that there is a much larger battle yet to be fought, a battle that will determine the future of a world torn between good and evil.
Stephen King's tour de force is a hulking novel with its extended version weighing in at over a thousand pages. Thankfully, King's writing has such a pull and a flow to it, that despite its size, The Stand is a relatively quick read, and one that can be hard to put down. King's depiction of the killer flu that originates in a military facility in California and sweeps the nation before anyone even has a sense of what's happening, is alternately terrifying and compelling. Some of the best chapters in the book emanate from the spreading of the flu and the all-too-believable cover-up that follows what starts as a PR disaster and turns into an apocalyptic death march.
However, the plague is just the tip of the iceberg, and as the relentless deaths from the flu finally slow to a trickle, King's narrative follows many of the survivors as they begin to dream and soon attempt to reassemble themselves into a society amid the wreckage. Here, King is again at his best, following the lives of innumerable characters and managing to give each of them a distinctive personality and a fleshed out backstory. Despite being introduced to far more characters than can be counted on two hands, readers will feel like they know each and every person that King chooses to focus on, and it will be impossible for readers not to relate to at least a few of them.
The Stand is not without its flaws, for sure. It's aged fairly well in general, but much of the slang gives away the fact that it is a 1970s book retooled for a 1990s audience. Around the two-thirds mark, King's story flags and drags for a while. The dialogue seems overdone and cheesy while the plot comes to a near standstill as all the characters arrive at a sort of planning stage. Thankfully, it doesn't last too long, the story picks up and ends with a bang. Numerous times in the last quarter of the book, King and his lovable, if terribly flawed cast of characters, nearly brought me to tears, and I could hardly put the book down in the race to the finish. While I'm afraid it might not unseat my favorite Stephen King books of old, The Stand is really not to be missed. It showcases a great American author at the top of his game, creating an epic tale of good and evil that fully probes the truth that there is no one that is truly one or the other.
Just by way of wrapping up this whole readalong thing that I did a shoddy job of finishing on time...how about a few bullet points? (These could be spoiler-y, so if you haven't read The Stand, look away!)
- In the end, I didn't hate Harold. I just felt so bad for him, how even in a new world he couldn't let go of old slights long enough to embrace a new life and a new identity that hadn't been forced upon him by cruel high schoolers and his own unthinking parents. Rather, he chose to believe that no one could ever change, that peoples' perceptions of him could never change, which leads him down a path of destruction, including his own. I thought this was all incredibly depressing because it rang true, I mean, how hard is it to leave behind a past that has damaged you? Too often, it's too hard.
- The whole establishment of the Boulder Free Zone and its ad hoc committe really dragged for me after the enthralling beginning to the novel with the plague unleashed and survivors regrouping. The whole Boulder Free Zone seemed to be afflicted by a plague of a different sort - cheesy, lovey dovey dialogue on numerous occasions, mostly boring committee meetings. It seemed like if we wanted to get from here to there a little faster, this could have been way pared down. I read the huge version, so I wonder if it actually was in the shorter version...
- Glen Bateman is the King of the Infodump, and I actually didn't mind. Turns out if you want to get away with infodumping in your postapocalyptic novel, all you need is a lovable, retired sociologist. I actually felt like I learned real things from Glen Bateman's windbagging, and even though I recognized the societal information infodumping, I mostly appreciated it.
- Once Larry finally worked through all his issues, I really came to like him as a character. I was pleased that Stu turned out to be as decent as we all hoped he was at the midpoint of the Standalong check-in. At the end of the day, though, I think Tom Cullen and Kojak might just have been my favorite characters.
- The second half of the book definitely didn't do it for me the way the first half did, but ultimately I enjoyed reading The Stand. I'm glad I finally did it, and it was good to revisit my love of Stephen King this summer!
Did you "Stand" this summer? What did you think?