Much like my baseless aversion to Westerns, I tend to avoid mainstream, prolific authors. However, so many people have told me “you HAVE to read The Stand” that I figured I better go through with it. I needed something non-fantasy to reset my expectations after the last book I read (Last Dragon, which was amazing, and will have a review forthcoming), so I figured I’d finally go through with reading The Stand.
Now – I think I griped about this when I reviewed The Gunslinger… but is it really fair to keep letting Mr. King go back and re-write his books? At least this time he didn’t get to change things around, but he did get to re-include 300-odd pages that were cut from the original edition. I’m just saying (yet again) that it seems like cheating. Also, can I bitch just a little about editing? It’s all well and good to let your pet author go back and add old text back, but when you update it don’t introduce anachronisms and inconsistencies, please.
Anyway, on to the book! The basic idea here is a post apocalypse story: the military has a security breach and an extremely virulent flu makes it out of the lab and into the wild, killing 90% of the population. The first quarter or so of the book deals solely with how the flu spreads, the reaction of the people, the military trying to keep things hush hush, major characters being introduced, etc. The second book chunk follows the main characters introduced at the start of the book as they make their way across the country, adapting to the change and dealing with the new world. They’re following mysterious dreams that seem to be leading them west. Quarter 3 is all about the new civilization that springs up around Boulder and begins to explore some of the strange, dark themes that everyone has been dreaming about, and the last fourth of the book is the war against that darkness. Vague, I know, but I don’t want to be too spoilerific. Suffice to say that the story starts as standard post-apoc, then takes a pretty significantly different tack from the norm, and gets pretty fantasy-themed and deep.
When it all boils down, the book was pretty damn good. I can definitely see why it was shortened in the first place – especially in the first half things drag pretty frequently. Still, by the end everything moves along very quickly and engagingly – I’m actually still having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the book is over. I keep expecting to have more to read… which all in all is usually a good sign in a book. It left me fulfilled but wanting more.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the plot of the book is how much it got me thinking about the other post-apoc book I read recently, Dies The Fire, by S. M. Stirling. I was only middling impressed with Dies The Fire the first time I read it, but while reading The Stand I found myself thinking more and more about Stirling’s work, and really analyzing it: comparing it to King’s, debating what was worked and what didn’t, thinking about the places they followed a similar path, and the places where they diverged completely. Honestly it makes me want to revise my review of Dies The Fire from “skip it” to “read it.” Intriguing.
Plot aside, one of the biggest strengths in The Stand is the characters. They’re all just so real and believable – it’s impressive to see such human creations in a work of fantasy. When my favorite character was killed off (on my lunch hour no less) I had to try hard not to get tears in my chili. Even characters that I wasn’t as attached to had me pretty upset – I was choked up through most of the last 150 pages. Also, kudos to King for sprinkling his literature with some false portents – it’s refreshing to think “oh, I know exactly where THIS is going” and then to be proven completely wrong. My one character gripe is that it seems like a few of the “core” characters could actually have used more development… it was weird to have two “main” characters next to each other, where one had chapters and chapters behind them, but the other had only a few paragraphs. It’s a knit pick, but it made me feel a bit unbalanced.
Finally, I have one last negative thing to say: I feel like the author ruined the ending of the book. The final chapter ends with a very Real conversation, appropriately tinged with melancholy and doubt – it was a perfect ending. But then you turn the page and there’s one last little caveat… and to me it felt insulting in its explicitness. The author didn’t -need- to say what he said; he had already implied it. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.
Anyway, I think I might just pull those two pages out of the book, and then return it to my shelf. Overall it was a very complete, fulfilling, and satisfying read, and I can understand why people have bugged me for so long to read it. I’m glad I finally did.