Five stars. Go read The Stand just as soon as you can. Everything below the cover image should be considered a spoiler, so go read The Stand. It’s great. Seriously, really awesome.
Date started: July 21st
Date finished: August 4th
I put off reading The Stand for a long time. Stephen King was one of those authors I came around to late. I think someone (possibly my dad) told me while I was young and impressionable that he’s a bad writer, so I took that snobbery well into adulthood without even sampling a word the man had written. Of course, that all went out the window as soon as I discovered and devoured The Dark Tower, King’s post-apocalyptic metafiction western epic. From there I jumped around to Under the Dome, 11.22.63, IT, The Shining, and most recently, The Wind Through the Keyhole and Joyland.
The problem is, while King has written a lot of books, it’s his long epics that really stuck with me the most. IT was tremendous, 11.22.63 is magnificent in all its genre bending shenanigans, and The Dark Tower has yet to be touched by any other book series for me. Hell, even Under the Dome is great, right up until the plot crash lands in the final few pages. The Stand, though. It was like the undiscovered country. Yeah, there’s thousands of words of King’s left to read, but The Stand was the last epic (not counting the apparently nutty but trashy Desperation/The Regulators).
I bought it a few years back after blasting through Under the Dome in a weekend, but I didn’t pick it up until just over a week ago, mostly due to that odd fear. Was it the right decision to leave it on the shelf so long? Probably not. But I got around to it in the end.
It frequently gets referred to by fans as King’s best novel and even though I disagree after reading (I still prefer The Dark Tower series as a whole and 11.22.63) I can see why people enjoy The Stand the most. It’s a sprawling work, jam packed with characters and plotlines that ebb and flow over the length of this one huge arc. It also caused me to reflect on post-apocalyptic fiction and its purpose in culture.
I’ve always thought of post-apocalyptic stories as being based on fear. There are stories where an apocalypse has happened and given rise to a totalitarian regime, playing on our fears of losing our freedom to some dictator or despot. There are stories much like my own (and many others before me) where society fractures into barbaric tribes or gangs, playing on our fears of the complete societal breakdown into lawless anarchy. Even zombie fiction, which is supremely popular at the time I’m writing this. Its popularity can likely be attributed to the cultural depression we’re in right now, with the threats of terrorist attacks and economic downturn. The Occupy movement was beaten into submission, but I take that as evidence that the so called 99% made the middle and upper classes very nervous for a while. What is a zombie horde if not an allegory for the ever consuming proletariat class?
What does this have to do with The Stand? Well, I initially tried to pigeonhole it into one of my previous definitions for post-apocalyptic fiction, and it just didn’t quite sit right. The closest it comes to is the warring tribes model, but even then, the two societies aren’t quite barbaric enough for that particular shoe to fit. The Stand forced me to consider post-apocalypse as power fantasy.
Stuart Redman is one of several protagonists in The Stand, yet his arc serves as the most important aspect of what I’m talking about. When he starts out, he’s the quintessential everyman. He’s not amazingly bright, and he’s not particularly strong. He’s a bit down on his luck, having lost his job at the calculator factory, and contents himself with hanging out at the service station with Bill Hapscombe and his other friends. He is the very definition of the word dependable. Yet, while as individuals we recognise his innately good traits, he is not the character we aspire towards, at least not at the start. Nobody sets out in life to be normal. Hell, I want to be a writer, which is an aspiration that requires no small amount of ego. Stu’s arc then is one of improvement. He starts out the everyman, and ends up what every person wants to be. A leader, a man who stands out from the pack, and is respected.
Larry Underwood, by contrast, is already in the process of attaining that dream before the plague hits. His hit single Baby Can You Dig Your Man (which seems hilariously 70s, given that the book was updated to a 90s setting) is climbing the charts and ‘friends’ are crawling out of the woodwork to bask in his fame and glory. The problem with Larry is, he’s squandered it. He’s thrown his money away on drugs and cars, smoking and snorting away his potential in a non-stop party haze. As his mother tells him early on, he’s a taker. There’s nothing inherently wrong or wilfully evil about Larry, he’s just selfish. His arc is one of redemption as he learns to become a respected person in the new community. He learns to stop taking from everyone around him and start giving back.
For all the horror that comes with Captain Trips, and all the lives it claims, what it offers is a clean slate. It’s the ultimate tabula rasa. This, I believe, is at the heart of what The Stand is, and what King was trying to achieve. It’s the fantasy of being able to start over. For the selfish man to have his sins forgiven. For the nobody to be somebody.
Interestingly, the two protagonist arcs I mentioned above are nearly reflected in the characters of Harold Lauder and Lloyd Henreid. Harold starts out as someone I should have identified with, and likely would have if I’d read the novel a few years ago. He’s the teenage nerd, the guy who’s more at home writing than talking to girls. He desperately wants to be noticed, but never is, especially by the object of his affections Frannie Goldsmith (who ends up with Stu Redman). Harold is an entirely passive character throughout. He feels alienated from the community by events that were out of his control (Frannie loving Stu) and is further manipulated by Randall Flagg into killing his friends and any hope he has at redemption. Perhaps worse, as soon as the job is done, Flagg casts him aside. The only time he truly chooses something for himself is when he chooses to eat his gun rather than die slowly.
Lloyd starts out as the darker version of Larry. Whereas Larry has fame and fortune, Lloyd is hanging out with Poke on a fairly successful crime spree. He’s rescued from prison by Flagg and made right hand man of the whole Vegas operation. Rather than being redeemed like Larry, he only deteriorates further, right up until the very end, where he starts to lose faith in Flagg and comes close to being remorseful for his choices.
And what of Flagg himself? He’s shown up across King’s entire oeuvre, often under different names. Randall Flagg, Walter O’Dim, Marten Broadcloak, the Ageless Stranger, the Walkin Dude, the Dark Man, the Black Man, the Man in Black, the Antagonist, the Covenant Man… He’s the personification of evil. Even if he didn’t kickstart the apocalypse, he was there to take advantage of peoples’ inherent bad nature after the dust settled.
And I can’t talk about Flagg without mentioning god’s messenger, Mother Abagail. The community she builds along with Stu, Larry, Frannie and the others in Boulder is smaller than Flagg’s Vegas community. I imagine the point being made here is that evil is the easier path. In the face of a clean slate and nobody to enforce any rules, most people will revert to their baser instincts. It’s all fascinating and done up in enough shades of grey to cover the whole moral spectrum.
Ultimately, The Stand asks of its readers, what would you do in the face of the apocalypse? Personally, I’d like to think I’m Stu Redman, though I imagine most people who read the book will want to think the same thing. The scary thing about it all is, I just don’t know. Hopefully the post-apocalypse power fantasy will stay just that, a fantasy.