Just read: 'The Stand' by Stephen King

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?). And finally, here are all the entries about Stephen King books specifically.

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The Stand is an objectively long book. It clocks in between 1,100 and 1,400 pages or so, depending on whether you purchase on hardcover, paperback, or mass market paperback. Since I had the defined goal of making my way through Stephen King's bibliography, I had my eye on The Stand from the get-go. I figure if I can make it through this book, I can theoretically make it through anything he's written.

The version of The Stand that I read was the complete / uncut edition, and I read it on my relatively new Kindle. The Kindle is new in the sense that The Stand was the first book I read on it, but not-so-new in the sense that I bought it two months before I started reading, and that the book took me about seven weeks to read on its own. This is a beast of a novel in terms of length and ambition (an aside: the uncut edition includes roughly 400 pages of story that King had to leave behind from the original version of the novel; his publisher at the time said the book was too long for their paperback printers), but I am pretty happy I read the this version. While there is certainly more beef in the novel than is absolutely necessary, I tend to enjoy long stories and the rich character development that usually comes with them.

That being said, King's character development in The Stand leaves something to be desired. His male characters are developed wonderfully, while his female characters are used more as plot devices than anything else. The book is also bland when you look at the diverseness of its characters, with nearly every main character being white. This book was originally released in the 1970s, and these types of trappings from a white author were much more expected and/or accepted at the time; it doesn't make them stick out like any less of a sore thumb in 2018, though. Hopefully the just-announced 10-hour mini-series from CBS will take some diverse liberties with its casting.

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With that issue noted, I did really enjoy this book. When I wrote recaps of Carrie'Salem's Lot and The Shining, I felt like I needed half a thousand words just to summarize the plots of those novels. But with The Stand, despite its heftier length, the plot summary is quite a bit simpler. The United States government accidentally releases a made-for-war strain of a "superflu" into common society, and like 99% of humans die from it. After most everyone is dead, the survivors who begin having dreams of either the "light" character, whose name is Mother Abagail, or the "dark" character, whose name is Randall Flagg aka The Dark Man aka The Walkin' Dude. Everything leads up to a great conflict (or, uh, a stand, if you will), but ultimately Flagg and his followers wind up sorta accidentally blowing themselves up with a nuclear warhead. The good guys wonder if humanity can learn from its mistakes, and are unsure.

There is a lot more to dig into with the book -- which you'd expect, from its 1,300 or whatever pages -- and a lot of that is character development (limited, as I said, mostly to the white men in the story), which I'll choose to go deep on now, because I feel like these blogs are mainly for my own personal reference. If you want to read a long post about a 40-year-old book, though, feel free. The book's ultimate hero figure is Stu Redman, a quiet Texan who is the first character we meet who's immune to the superflu. He winds up at a government plague center in Stovington, VT, where authorities are conducting tests on him in an attempt to develop an antidote to the virus -- but the superflu keeps morphing, so no cure is ever uncovered. Stu escapes this facility and meets Fran Goldsmith and Harold Lauder as these two are heading toward the Stovington facility, assuming that would be an ideal location to check for survivors. Harold immediately dislikes Stu due to the anticipation that Stu will want to romance Fran, because Harold himself is a very self-conscious teen who has been in love with Fran for years. Also, at this point in the story we've also already learned that Fran is pregnant with her ex-boyfriend's child -- her ex-boyfriend died from the superflu, as did most of the population.

Stu, Harold and Fran travel together to Nebraska, where they are lead by dreams of Mother Abagail. They eventually meet Glen Bateman, a sociologist who joins their group and proves as a source of theories and advice to Stu down the line. (Glen's character does sometimes seem to be voice of King himself in his book, with Glen going on long rants about society and the perils of technology ... many of these opinions seem to fall in line with King's own.)

There are two other important groups of Good Guys that make their way to Nebraska. One is led by Larry Underwood, who at the time of the superflu was a sorta-kinda pop star with a hit song called "Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?" While the superflu rages through New York, Underwood is grappling with the idea of himself "not being a good guy," as recent events in his life have shed light on the fact that he's a bit of a selfish asshole. He meets a woman in New York named Rita Blakemoor, and the two begin traveling together before Rita dies by overdosing on pills. Underwood himself isn't sure whether the event is a suicide or an accident. (Later in the book, there's a quote from Larry's thoughts that stood out as quite memorable to me about personal change: "No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just … come out the other side. Or you don’t.")

He meets up with Nadine Cross and a child who she calls Joe. This isn't Nadine's child, but someone she picked up in her own journey; he dresses only in underwear and carries a knife around. He profusely distrusts Larry until the two connect over the guitar. Nadine, meanwhile, is initially drawn to Larry -- who is likewise drawn to her -- but they ultimately do not start a relationship because Nadine (a virgin -- smh, Stephen King) has visions of a man for whom she must save herself. Spoiler alert: This man is Randall Flagg. Larry does eventually strike up a relationship with Lucy Swann, a woman who joins this group during their journey.

The final traveling party is led by Nick Andros, a deaf-mute who rides out the superfly in Shoyo, Arkansas. He meets a mildly mentally challenged man named Tom Cullen, who he travels with to Nebraska alongside Ralph Brentner, an Army veteran, and several others.

 The characters of Nick Andros and Tom Cullen from  The Stand  mini-series, made by ABC in the '90s.

The characters of Nick Andros and Tom Cullen from The Stand mini-series, made by ABC in the '90s.

These cross-country journeys are all intertwined together in the book, and makes for some damn fine storytelling from King. Each group goes through its own trials, and you get every possible detail -- a luxury that a writer with 1,300 pages to burn through can afford. If you're into detailed storytelling (including quite a bit of information that you won't need again, or information that could certainly have been distilled into a smaller amount), you'll like this part of the book.

Our three groups meet Abagail Freemantle, who is over 100 years old, in Nebraska. She leads the group to Boulder, CO, where they attempt to set up a democracy called the Free Zone as their community grows in size exponentially. Just as these first three traveling parties were attracted to Mother Abagail in Nebraska, more and more travelers (in big and small groups) wind up finding the community in Boulder. Meanwhile, Randall Flagg has set up shop just over the Rocky Mountains in Las Vegas, NV. He builds a sizable community as well, attracting people in the same fashion Mother Abagail does.

The two communities are run very differently from the beginning. Stu, Larry, Nick, Fran, Glen, Ralph and Susan Stern establish themselves as an "ad hoc committee," with the goal of preparing for a community-wide meeting where a governing board will be elected. They wind up being nominated and elected as a group by Harold Lauder, who has been harboring ill feelings for Stu and Fran since they became a couple during their journey cross-country, and who has a very specific plan up his sleeve.

This committee in Boulder establishes several other committees to get work done -- there's a group responsible for getting the power back on, a group responsible for burying dead bodies across Boulder, etc. But in Las Vegas, Flagg is running things as more of a dictatorship, with his right-hand man being Lloyd Henreid. Flagg rescued Lloyd from imminent death as Lloyd was locked in jail when the superflu hit; together, Flagg and Lloyd pair new arrivals to Las Vegas with very specific jobs in an effort to seemingly prepare for a war. Their electricity is turned on quickly and they have people working to get weapons and planes ready at an air base. It also helps that Flagg possesses a pretty healthy amount of supernatural powers: He can levitate, he can travel long distances in short order, he can sometimes spit fire from his fingers, he is super strong, he can communicate with people who are attracted to him remotely, he can embody some animals, and he has premonitions that tell him the future sometimes. Ok.

 From  The Stand  comic book adaptation; the crow is one of the animals Flagg can embody.

From The Stand comic book adaptation; the crow is one of the animals Flagg can embody.

Mother Abagail leaves Boulder for an extended period of time, and Harold Lauder attempts to blow up the Free Zone Committee via a radio bomb during one of their meetings. He arrives at this point of climax for his character after Nadine seduces him, over a period of weeks, into helping her do Flagg's bidding. Nadine and Harold immediately head to Las Vegas to join Flagg. But Harold's assassination attempt is mostly thwarted by the impeccably timed return of Mother Abagail. Her arrival draws most of the committee out of the house where they were meeting, though Nick Andros and several others do die.

Mother Abagail explains that she went on a journey to speak to God -- this book's got a good amount of God in it, though as a nonreligious person, this did not adversely affect the plot for me (and, side note, a great quote: "The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything") -- and says that Stu, Larry, Glen and Ralph need to head to Las Vegas to confront Flagg. She says they must walk there and carry no supplies with them, and that they may not live, but that their actions might save their community. Stu leaves a very pregnant Fran and the group begins their journey to Las Vegas. They become the second wave of Free Zone residents to depart for Vegas, as the committee had previously requested three citizens to independently go to Las Vegas as spies and report back. The three spies included Tom Cullen and two others (the two other die; Tom Cullen does not, laws, no).

While these four are on their way, we learn that Harold died during his journey with Nadine. He falls off his motorcycle, breaks his leg, and commits suicide rather than waiting for starvation or the elements to take him; Nadine leaves him almost immediately, having foreseen this event via Flagg's communiques. Nadine makes it to Las Vegas and is pretty much instantly impregnated by Flagg in an extremely gross scene; Nadine's character completely lost her sense of self weeks ago in the storyline, when she began to join forces with Harold.

By the time she meets Flagg, her character's only purpose is carry his son; she is portrayed as more or less frozen within her own body, incapable of any self-motivated actions. This is the case until she baits Flagg into killing her by angering him -- he throws her off the balcony of a hotel room, and her murder is the most consequential of a series of events that show Flagg's grip on his community is slipping. The other extremely consequential event involves a character named Trashcan Man, who is useless for most things aside from dealings with weapons and fire. He goes out into the desert and regularly returns with high-grade military weapons, which he then figures out how to activate for future use. There's an incident where Trash feels slighted by some of his coworkers at the air base, and he proceeds to blow up quite a few things. He escapes Las Vegas before Flagg can execute him, and to repay Flagg, he finds a nuclear warhead and begins the process of transporting it back to the Walkin' Dude.

While Harold's death is honestly a bit cathartic for the reader -- Harold has been a bit of an asshole of late -- it's also tragic in the overall scheme of things. Harold's character is so caught up in how unpopular he was as an overweight high-schooler that he realizes too late the opportunity the superflu presented him. Harold was well-liked around the Free Zone by most of its residents because he was being extremely nice to everyone, volunteering for jobs no one wanted to do -- to Harold, this was part of a scheme, but to the community around him, it was genuinely nice. He also lost a ton of weight, which I think is expected if you walk from Maine to Nebraska, and realizes only at the end that he could have led a perfectly happy and good life in Boulder with the Free Zone.

There's another broken leg on the journey to Las Vegas, and this one belongs to Stu Redman. His leg breaks as the group is attempting to get past a particularly difficult piece of road, and he convinces Glen, Ralph and Larry to go on without him, saying it would be God's choice if they met again. He winds up being kept company by Glen's dog, Kojak, who is an amazing dog and a very good boy. Kojak effectively keeps Stu alive until Tom Cullen stumbles upon him as he's on his way back to Boulder from Las Vegas. Tom finds Stu in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion that occurs when Trashcan Man arrives with a highly radioactive nuclear warhead during a public execution that Flagg is holding; Flagg intends to kill Ralph and Larry to make a statement to his community (having already killed Glen shortly after capturing the group), but the nuclear bomb goes off and all of Las Vegas and its inhabitants are destroyed. Stu and Tom limp their way back, slowly, to Boulder, with Tom nursing Stu back to health from a bad case of pneumonia. This journey drags on quite a bit more than necessary.

Although Stu misses the birth of Fran's baby, Peter, but Peter survives a superflu infection in only his earliest days on the planet with the help of the Free Zone's doctors. Stu and Fran eventually move with Peter back to Maine, Fran now pregnant with Stu's baby, because they felt it was time to move on from the increasing population of the Free Zone. King ends the story with a general vagueness of never knowing whether humanity will learn from its mistakes. I hoped for a bit more from Fran at the end; she's one of the most heroic characters in the book based on her character arc, but King rarely gives her a chance at a spotlight that isn't accompanied by Stu or in Harold's shadow.

As Stu and Fran settle down in Maine, King takes us to some remote island, where Flagg has somehow been reborn, apparently using his powers to escape the nuclear blast. He encounters a small group of primitive natives to the island and presumably will begin building a new community there; however, no sequel to The Stand was ever released (not yet, anyway).

That's a long recap of the book, with some thoughts swirled in, but overall I will remember The Stand fondly. As we neared the story's end, I had invested so much time into these characters and they were so well illustrated that the deaths of Glen, Ralph and Larry hit me really hard; Tom and Stu's journey back to Boulder was also quite emotional. The lack of development for Nadine and Lucy was a large negative for me, and probably my main ding on this book. It speaks a lot to King's writing prowess that he can take such a basic-sounding concept (apocalyptic journey pits God versus Satan) and write it in a resoundingly impressive way.

Next up in my journey through King's bibliography are Night Shift (a collection of short stories that was actually released before The Stand), followed by The Long Walk and The Dead Zone. Those books will take me to the end of King's 1970s output, and the only work of his I didn't consume will be Rage, which apparently is too negatively viewed in retrospect to keep in print. Perhaps I will also try to get my hands on The Stand comic book and 1990s TV mini-series adaptations as well.

The Stand is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.