Man vs Bookshelf

Man vs Bookshelf: The Stand

This entry is part 95 of 104 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

When are you reading this? When was it released?

11th of May, I think is the plan.

Well, it was finished on Friday the 19th of April, meaning it took six days to read. That’s an average of 221 pages a day. Pretty impressive.

And on it went from there.

Between The Shining and The Stand I read the first two Harry Potter books (you might have heard of them) and the first Zom-B book (which you’re less likely to have heard of).

Once it was done, I still had three weekend days left, due to the bank holiday. Fay and I travelled to her parents and I made the most of my time away by reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the Saturday, the second Zom-B book on the Sunday and 400 pages of the next Stephen King book – The Dead Zone on the Monday.

A good, good weekend.

Now it’s Wednesday. Blog time.


Stephen King

As with Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining I start with the disclaimer that I will not be discussing my feelings on Stephen King again, but why not click below to check out my previous entries–

And now, the latest novel in the King oeuvre I plan to read…


The Stand

It may be King’s most famous novel. After all, it is hard to ignore by sheer dint of size, and I wonder how many people have abandoned reading it part way through, not because they were not enjoying it, but because the monster became too much, and life got in the way.

Some years ago I printed out the Stephen King bibliography from Wikipedia and decided I was going to read all the books – in order.

With that in mind I bought Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand and The Dead Zone, and I got going.

I read Carrie, I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I read The Shining.

Then I reached The Stand. All 1,300 pages of it, and I fumbled.

I can’t remember how far I managed to make it but it can’t have been halfway. It might not have been three hundred pages.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying it. It was just I found it quite slow, and there were so many pages and eventually, I picked up another book and decided I would read them in tandem. For a while, I probably did, then I started favouring the second book more, and more and more until…

It lay forgotten for some time after that failure. Long enough that Hodder, the British publisher of King released all his books with new covers and I was forced to go out and buy Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining and The Stand and The Dead Zone again. This time adding Firestarter and Cujo to my collection.

Yes, I’m that kind of person.

It also meant I could not read The Dead Zone. I was doing it in order, after all, and skipping to The Dead Zone before finishing The Stand was an abhorrent thought to me.

Yes, I’m that kind of person.

For a long while, I kept both editions of The Stand. Both the uncut version. 2,600 pages of unfinished King staring at me from the shelves, taunting me, demanding to be read.

Eventually, I picked that book up again. Eventually, I finished it.

It took months, the first time.

Now, less than two years later, I’ve picked it up and read it again. As mentioned above, this time it took six days.

But what did I think?


The Story

Mother Abigail – I think – I’ve not seen it

As with most of King’s novels (and as discussed last week), the set-up of The Stand is simple.

Following a governmental fuck-up, a weaponised virus is released and, due to an equipment fuck-up, an infected man is allowed to escape before it can be contained.

Unstoppable and incurable, the virus quickly wipes out over 99% of the American population, leaving a handful of survivors alone and afraid.

Driven by shared dreams the good in society are led to Colorado where they try to rebuild society. The bad to Las Vegas (of course) where they submit to the dictatorship of evil Randall Flagg (aka. The Dark Man).

Realising Flagg is going to wipe the Colorado Free Zone out the first chance he gets, religious focal point Mother Abigail sends the main characters on a quest to Las Vegas where they will make their final stand, and decide the fate of the new world.


The Best of it

One of the great things about Stephen King is how he can make the ordinary so compulsively readable.

I know, this is a novel about the end of the world and people surviving within it, but that description hides the fact that a lot of the time so little is happening.

First, we have the world before it has fully realised what the virus is doing. Here we watch Fran dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, a boyfriend she doesn’t love, and a mother is, to put it bluntly, a bitch; death, mute Nick Andros working with a local sheriff to capture the men who mugged and attacked him roadside; Larry Underwood come home to his mother while dealing with his rising star following a hit single’s release and his own selfish tendencies.

All of these stories are interesting enough on their own even if you ignore the fact the world bas fallen apart.

Once the world has ended we get long sprawling chapters where our central characters take their separate paths towards the combined endpoint in Colorado. During this journey, there is a section with a shoot out and a bit where Larry almost gets his throat cut by a feral child, but the majority of it is just people dealing with people.

And always it is readable.

Upon founding the Colorado Free Zone (or is it Boulder Free Zone? Can’t remember) we get chapters and chapters of them starting up a committee and new form of government. We read the minutes of the committee meetings.

King has admitted he had trouble with this section. He couldn’t work out how to get our main characters from sitting around playing politics to taking their epic journey west to face The Dark Man in Las Vegas.

Still, even before the event which sends them West happens it is interesting. Or at least, I found it fascinating to watch them build up this new world.

But the real strength of The Stand is the same as always with King.

The Characters.

Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Nick Andros, Larry Underwood, Harold Lauder, Lloyd Heinreid, Trashcan Man, Nadine Cross and many more besides. King juggles a big cast here and somehow doesn’t drop the ball with any of the characters.

Across the pages we watch them change as a result mainly of the end of the world but also as a result of the smaller changes in their lives such as Frannie’s pregnancy or Harold jealousy. Some of the characters get kinder, some braver, some crueller and some madder.

As with all of King’s novels, it is the characters changes that drive the story forward and it is this that makes it such a fantastic novel.

Except, occasionally, when that pesky plot seems to get in the way.


Black and White Magic

The problem with focusing so heavily with characters is that sometimes they’re not going to do what you want.

King has often been accused of clumsily chucking in plot to a story just to make sure his characters arrive at the right place at the right time.

With The Stand, it is more obvious than usual.

King has this set of characters. He wants to see first how they deal with a virus wiping out most of the world. This is fine. The virus is released, and the plot flows naturally from there.

The problem comes when King wants to bring these disparate souls together so he can see how the bad ones work under a dictatorship and the good work on building a new democracy.

See America, if you don’t know, is a big place, and King has no way of getting these characters together without hundreds of thousands of pages.

To resolve this conundrum, he resorts to one of the cheapest literary techniques going.

Dreams.

Flagg

Yup, after the world comes to an end and our characters wander aimlessly, they begin to dream. The good characters dreaming of Mother Abigail, being drawn to her, the bad of Randall Flagg the Dark Man, being drawn to him.

It feels like a cheat. An easy solution to a problem that is admittedly, uh, problematic.

This also feeds into another key problem.

For someone who is so good at writing characters. At getting to the heart of what makes people people and showing them grow and change. It seems odd that King would fall back on the lazy duality that everyone is either evil or good.

Of course, there are plenty of nasty people that would feel uncomfortable with some of the abhorrent acts The Dark Man performs (crucifixion, for example) and would refuse to submit to it, but that, equally, would not want to be part of the Boulder/ Colorado free zone.

Again, it feels as though this is a lazy way of splitting good and bad and setting up The Stand at the end without much fuss.

In truth, I’m not sure this novel would have suffered had there been no magic.

Dreams aside Mother Abigail almost gets away with it, because she believes she is receiving messages from God and it is left ambiguous whether this is actually happening or not.

Fine.

Flagg The Dark Man, on the other hand, is out and out magic.

He levitates, has some precognitive and telepathic abilities, and at several points during the novel either possesses or turns into animals.

Again, the magic here seems to be used as a short cut. He is the dictator of his kingdom and the people follow him because he is magic, and they fear him.

This is a literary trait many baddies suffer from. They are out and out evil to the point they treat their followers exclusively like shit.

Yet their followers, mostly, keep following.

In reality, the evil dictators who build huge followings may well be nasty killers, but they tend to come to power because they are charismatic and they feed into the aspirations and the fears of their would be followers.

Before they make people hate them, they make people, usually the masses, love them.

It’s hard to imagine to look at his picture, but Hitler was a captivating speaker. Flagg doesn’t have this. Magic is a substitute. People follow him not because he captures their imagination, but because he can float, read their minds, and turn into a ferret.

Given how brilliant King is at character writing, it’s a shame he couldn’t turn Flagg into someone who relied on a captivating and dangerous personality rather than magic tricks.


The Worst of it

Despite my gripes regarding the magic in this story, it doesn’t detract in a big way. You accept it’s part of the story and move on. It never got in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

For the first 1,000 pages, nothing got in the way of my enjoyment. From the collapse of society to the rebuilding of society in the new world, the story was brilliant.

Then Mother Abigail gets a message from God and sends the main characters (except Smurfette, Frannie, who’s too busy being pregnant) on a quest (by foot, with no weapons) to face Flagg in Vegas.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, which is a shame because there is so much I’d like to say about it.

Basically, it’s a cheat. A cop-out. An easy answer.

It’s a major problem with a lot of King’s novels. His distaste for worrying about plot often means his brilliant characters get to the place they need to be, but without a tied up plot.

In this case, despite The Stand’s immense length, it feels like it should be longer, or that it should have been a series, which King rarely does.

See, past page 1,000 we have a great set up. Two burgeoning communities, one ruled by democracy, one by dictatorship (or even theocracy, given the reverence with which Flagg is viewed by his supporters.)

With people deserting both sides, it could have been brilliant to watch them properly face off against. To see if our heroes really could triumph against Flagg.

Instead, we get this quest, which feels shoehorned in, and a rushed ending that leaves a lot to be desired.

It is a poor end to what is otherwise an excellent book, and it’s a real shame.

Not that this should deter people from reading the book.

The heart of this story and the characters that populate it are brilliant. As always King’s cast undergoes a lot of change throughout and if you can ignore the end, it’s still well worth watching them on their journey.

A recommended read.


Next Time

Next up we’ll be looking at the next King novel – The Dead Zone

Series Navigation<< Man vs Bookshelf: The ShiningMan vs Bookshelf: The Dead Zone >>
The following two tabs change content below.
International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

Latest posts by Mark Ayre (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *