The Stand

The complete and uncut edition
By Stephen King

 

He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines . . . the grass yellows up and dies where he spits.  He’s always outside.  He came out of time . . . He has the name of a thousand demons.  Jesus knocked him into a herd of pigs once.  His name is Legion.  He’s afraid of us . . . He knows magic.  He can call the wolves and live in the crows . . . He’s the king of nowhere.

crowIf we don’t have each other, we go crazy with loneliness. When we do, we go crazy with togetherness.

 

Stephen King is easily one of the most prolific writers of the 21st century, and his fixation on horror is responsible for bringing us chilling stories like The ShiningCarrieChildren of the Corn, and The Ring.  And I don’t like to be afraid.  I don’t do scary movies, haunted houses, or hide-and-go-seek in the dark.  So when I saw that a King novel was on the list, I nearly screamed in terror.  Then I got a grip, looked into it a little bit more, and discovered that The Stand is actually not a horror novel.

It is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival and human tenacity mixed with a fantasy-like good versus evil battle.  After the Superflu Virus wipes out 98% of society, people across the country are left picking up the pieces and figuring out how to rebuild civilization.  The complete and uncut edition, set in 1990s America, follows different people’s stories from a rising pop star in NYC and a college student in coastal Maine to a group of factory workers in rural Texas.  The first third of the book is strictly science and survival, but then things start to get weird when people discover that they are all having the same nightmares about the Dark Man coming to wipe them out and a woman of God beckoning them to safety.  Desperate for help and reeling from the Superflu’s aftermath, people listen to their dreams and begin migrating towards the Dark Man in Las Vegas or God’s messenger in Boulder, Colorado.  With the country split in two and control of the whole continent up for grabs, things quickly come to an apex while people are still figuring out what is right and wrong in a world with new rules.

There is no doubt in my mind that Stephen King is a master of his craft.  Reading his work is like dreaming with your eyes open.  He paints incredibly vivid scenes down to the minutest details, and while it seems like this style of writing could be boring and cumbersome, King uses his words to create a world that you can almost reach out and touch.  He perfectly balances scientific and survival facts with magic and divine encounters in a delicious blend of the normal and paranormal.

And though this book isn’t horror, that does not mean it is light reading.  Not by a long shot.  Throughout this book’s 1,100+ pages, readers witness the deaths of 93 individuals.  Let alone the countless groups of people we watch die before even learning their names and the millions of dead, rotting bodies the survivors must wade through in every stinking city.  This is a post-apocalyptic world, and the flu didn’t differentiate between the good and the bad.  It didn’t leave the power on or offer up 60-degree, sunny weather while everyone got their act together.  It killed cops and left murderers and rapists.  Along with the heroes in this book, there is an equal number of truly horrible people who do truly horrible things.  King does not shy away from these scenes, and when characters are being tortured, you are too.

What makes this story possibly more terrifying than King’s tales of psychotic killers and haunted towns is the very real possibility of this story coming true.  Chapter 8 of The Stand is one of the simplest and yet most disturbing chapters in the book.  It details how quickly the virus spread from one side of the country to another and how quickly it became an epidemic out of control.  With today’s technology, a virus can travel from one side of the nation to another in just a matter of hours.  And what started as a bad cold in Texas ended with an entire civilization being decimated in a matter of weeks.

And then what?  Which is exactly what all of the survivors are left asking.  With their government gone and most cities uninhabitable, can they even call themselves Americans?  King poses those questions for his characters and to his readers.  King doesn’t just tell a what-if story – What if everyone died?  What if the devil was trying to destroy what was left?  He also tells a so-what story – So what would you do?  So what decisions would society make?  What starts as a survivor thriller leaves you grappling with questions about what our society is founded on and how we behave when all structure is ripped away.  It begs the questions what differentiates the good from the bad and how do we get from one point to the other?

The Stand is a long read.  The original version was published in 1978 and contained a mere 823 pages, but the uncut edition weighs in at a whopping 1,153 pages of death, misery, and woe.  It’s no walk in the park, but most adventures aren’t.  The debate over which edition of The Stand is better still rages on today, nearly 25 years later.  And although I cannot speak to that, having only read the uncut edition, I can say this:  I can’t imagine what he would have taken out.  Every page is necessary in King’s “let’s stop and think about this” style, and I’m hooked.  The story, although not a riveting page-turner, is beautiful, exciting, and thought-provoking.  I don’t know if this was my first step towards reading a horror novel, but I do know that I have to read more Stephen King.

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