The Stand

by Stephen King

Rating: ★★★

A hefty brick of a book, and one which it is relaxing to sink into and follow the current. The overarching plot is that of a worldwide (though predictably US-centric) apocalyptic plague, unleashed by an accident in the laboratories of secret warmongering facilities and willfully spread to slaughter the rest of the globe by a maniacal nationalist military machine. The book follows the tracks of the very rare immune survivors as they walk through a desolate America in which strange mystical forces are starting to awaken, and beckon.

King's real contribution, however, is not so much a novel take on the apocalypse or the post-apocalyptic world (though in that latter class at least he is solid, making critical points about what having the effects of a fallen civilisation lying around will mean), but in his incredibly devoted attention to the psychological depth and detail of his characters. This might be an apocalypse novel, but it doesn't feel so much like it's about science and mysticism, because the overwhelming majority of the text is just small, realistic detail about the everyday matters of travel, communication, relationships and society. There is startlingly little of what you might call 'action' in the novel, and it is all realistically sudden and confusing. The real conflict in the book is drawn from the slow, building tensions that King erects over the relationships and the budding mysticism of the survivors.

I enjoyed lots of it, and there are certainly many memorable images to be had, in many ways outstripping any zombie movie for their grit. King is unforgiving with characters that have built a relationship with the reader, in what are on reflection good choices for the story overall. It is certainly the case that the book could have been a lot shorter, but I don't feel particularly that it should have been, or that it overran its plot. The ending was somewhat weaker than I had hoped for, and several conflict points seemed to be resolved somewhat anticlimactically, but at least it didn't devolve like IT did. The mix of magic and science-fiction and realism was perhaps a little hard to contain, but I know this is somewhat King's style.

On which note: it was somewhat strange to see King in this novel putting the Christian small-town folk, with a self-appointed council of unanimously group-thinking overseers, as the side of the good guys. The well-travelled free-thinker and the technical folks were the bad guys. This is somewhat contra the messages from his other works I've read. Whatever the cause, it was a relief to see he is not always riding the same horse.

Worthy of inclusion in any top collections of apocalypse novels, not so much for its plot as for its deep characterisation, this is not so much chilling as gripping drama.