Note: I listened to The Stand as an audio book; I did not read it. This review is based off my second time through, and at 50 hours of audio, it took me quite a few months to reach the end.
The Stand is a juggernaut of a novel that spans 12+ main characters, the entire continent of the United States, and multiple genres—and all in a package that would seriously hurt if you dropped it on your foot. It’s a critique on the world; it’s a sociology experiment; it’s a philosophical study on religion.
It’s, well, amazing.
The Stand starts off as a horror piece. Through blind accident, a military-grade “superflu” gets loose and winds up killing 99% of the world’s population. Watching the world slowly and futilely fight the superflu is both a highlight and a terrifying journey. Stephen King jumps around from place to place, from person to person, burning his world in small vignettes that paint vivid pictures and real characters. The man has a knack for fleshing out big things in few words, and he uses that skill with absolute gusto here.
The superflu feels real, and that makes it terrifying. I’ve read a great many of King’s horror books, but this is the only premise that I believe could really happen. It makes the worldwide struggle feel so much more impactful, so much more dire, and so much more apocryphal.
But once the flu has spread, killed, and passed, The Stand takes a turn. It puts away horror and picks up drama and mystery. The characters left over are now stuck in a barren world with no laws or reason, and to make matters worse, realty is starting to thin. It begins with reoccurring dreams, ones which everyone left alive begin to share. The first dream is of a man in black, of a shadow figure whose face is never seen but his malicious intent is always felt. He stalks and haunts. The second dream is of an old black woman living in a corn field. She’s playing the guitar; she’s smiling. She welcomes and radiates safety.
The next perhaps six hundred or more pages are spent with the large cast of characters wandering around. The Stand isn’t afraid to meander, but it has the page space to do so, and every path taken is fun and worth exploring. There are no bad characters here, and it’s always a fun surprise to see which character the next chapter will follow.
Normally I’d be apt to talk about the characters, their arcs, and various examples of good and bad writing. The problem here is that there are too many characters to cover, each one has an arc of some kind, and there are no examples of bad writing.
The sheer fact that every character changes and evolves is astounding when you look at the volume of them. Some change more than others, but at the end of the book, everyone is different.
No one can truly know what would happen if a disaster like the superflu struck the Earth, but The Stand acts as a great, “What if?” When community is all but gone, what happens? When currency becomes meaningless, what happens? When everyone you’ve ever loved is suddenly dead and you’re the only one left in your small town, what do you do? When no one is around to police anyone, what happens? When communities are formed, how do you structure them?
The disaster in The Stand feels so real that King’s answers to these questions feel like the right ones. I’ve seen plenty of disaster movies, I’ve read other disaster books, and I’m sure we’ve all been in a stupid debate about the zombie apocalypse, but The Stand is the only work that’s actually gotten me to deeply think about what might happen after society has come to an end.
Religion becomes an important theme as The Stand progresses through its obliterated world. However, religion isn’t introduced as a black-versus-white / good-versus-evil conflict but rather a study on the Problem of Pain. How can a loving God exist alongside so much destruction? Why must a deity with so much power demand such harsh sacrifices?
These questions aren’t ever answered, but they are flawlessly integrated into the story, creating a behind-the-scenes character (God) whose actions and inactions only add to the uneasy horror present throughout the book.
The Stand is an amazing piece of Literature. It’s fun, it’s thought provoking, and it’s absolutely worth your time if you haven’t read it yet.