Book Review – The Stand, by Stephen King

The Stand was published first in 1978. This review covers the “complete & uncut” version published in May, 1991.

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WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

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I first read The Stand in high school, probably. It was this exact copy, too, a brick-sized hunk of paper and miniscule type and black-and-white drawings that enthralled me for weeks back then. Of course, anything by Stephen King was fodder for a wild Saturday night spent lounging on the couch for hours, book propped up on my chest, lost in the stories of Bangor, Maine or, in this one, Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Stand is one of King’s more controversial books. Not for its subject matter (the oft-repeated battle between good and evil) but for the preceding editorial decisions which were made to cut about 1/2 of the original manuscript for publication. King lays out, in a two-part Preface, that this book is not the original manuscript simply restored. Instead, this version is an expansion of that original story. Characters, settings, backstory, even whole subplots were removed from the original in a publication decision: a smaller book would cost less, and therefore sell more copies, and make more profit, so a smaller book was published.

Once King became more popular, and had the legion of fans which would buy anything, a new version was made to capitalize on that profit opportunity. Thus, the version I bought in high school (as one of the legion) and trundled with me as I moved 3 times while an adult.

I did not read that slimmed-down version. I only read this “restored” version, and thus loved it. Also, I was pretty well brainwashed into reading King and only King in those days, so I hadn’t seen enough of the broader story-telling world to reasonably consider the merits of the book by itself.

However, 25 years on, I have been exposed to many more authors and styles, and even critically studied the editorial process and revisionist. As such, I feel in a much better place to evaluate this book on its merits.

To be honest, I find it lacking.

First of all, it is bloated. We get approximately 200 named characters (I may exaggerate, because I don’t want to go through them all, but I’m confident it’s closer to that than 100). Plus there are many characters and subplots that, ultimately, don’t really contribute to the finale of the story. Now, not everyone has to. But there were just too many side stories to consider each one necessary to the tale.

And perhaps there are people who enjoy reading every little detail about as many characters as possible. Don’t get me wrong – I read every word. I enjoyed it and King’s style does keep one moving through the text. Yet I’m fairly confident that the “accountant’s” decision to cut words to make a smaller volume actually forced an editorial process that critically examined every word and ensured each one was necessary.

Second, the illogicalities of the action stand out in stark contrast to the overarching idea contained therein. The premise is that a major, nearly-100% fatal illness is released into the community. Then, what happens to the survivors? It’s the story of a nuclear war without the actual war, and how the survivors must adapt in the aftermath. Yes, in such a situation, there will be much that is lying around just waiting to be picked up and used, but there are still some things which didn’t get explained: how did the survivors who travelled by car (many of them), get the gas out of the pumps into those cars without electricity? We saw one scene in which Larry Underwood pries up a manhole cover to access gas. Does he do this every 300 miles as the tank empties? What about those who don’t have access to the same tools as him? With the electricity off (because all the power generators have nobody to run them), the pumps don’t work, and refrigeration goes out, soon allowing most of the remaining food supply to spoil. Does everyone live on tinned beef and Saltines? There’s just a lot of logistics that seem to be covered, but really aren’t.

Third, the production of this volume seemed to be less-than-perfect. I noticed many typos. Now, some can be expected. Maybe 1 every 100 pages? So in 1,130 pages there could reasonably be 11. I marked 3 in the last 50 pages alone. It was only in the latter fifth of the book that I started keeping track, and I’m not about to go back through just for that, but one would think that the copy editor would have caught more of these.

Finally, though, my major criticism of this story is one which The Stand shares with many of King’s works of similar length. That is, the finale, the conclusion, the climax where all of the tension has been building to finally gets resolved, is, in the end, nothing more than a deus ex machina. We criticize this technique in lower writers as a cop-out. Why not here?

Ultimately, the ending is where this all comes together and lacks substance. Larry Underwood, Ralph Brentner, Glen Bateman, and Stu Redman (accompanied by Kojak the dog) set off from Boulder on a God-given quest, delivered through the mouthpiece that is Abagail Freemantle. This is not something they developed on their own, not something they brought on, or something they actually had any “agency” in. [“Agency” is a fancy writer’s word for the whole of authority and power and action that a character has in a scene or a book.] When 3 of them (not Stu, who fell down a hill and broke his leg and was left behind with Kojak) arrive in Las Vegas for the final confrontation with Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, they don’t ultimately DO anything.

The protagonists are not the solution to the problem. They don’t have or exercise any power at all. They simply exist, and wait for the story to take place around them, and the final end to happen for them. Which it does. The hand of God comes down out of the sky and does for them what they were unable to do.

Which begs the question – why did they have to go in the first place? Why were they even there? If this whole thing is a set-up from God to end the R.F. Man, why have the plague only kill most of the people? Why not have it kill them all and start fresh again? And if it was not from God, then what exactly was the thing which came out of the sky and detonated the nuclear bomb, anyway?

This is the same sort of deus ex machina that showed up in other King novels, specifically Under the Dome. It almost seems like he started writing a story, got to a place where he said, “Now how do I end this?”, answered with, “hell if I know. Let’s make it all a dream!” And there you have it.

So: while I enjoyed the book (I must have, because it took me about a month to read it), I’m starting to think that it would have been better as the shorter version. I don’t have that one, and at this point I’m not going to get it, but I have to wonder: is this what Successful Author Syndrome looks like?

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P.S. Before you get into the whole “Yeah, let’s see you do it better!” commentary on my inability to critique due to lack of peer-ness with Mr. King, note that I don’t have to be a peer in order to give my opinion. That’s the beauty of self-publishing on this internet thing. Any jerk with a keyboard can make his voice heard, I don’t have to have “agency” in this to be able to say what I think. Nobody’s forcing you to agree with me, or even listen.

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