Stephen King‘s The Stand is an awesomely epic creation. It’s good versus evil writ large across the American landscape. It’s heavy, detailed, and extremely rich in the characterizations of its people and themes. The story is familiar — an apocalyptic virus is accidentally (and inevitably) released from a government lab. Over 99% of all human life is wiped out by what becomes known as Captain Trips. This story is about those who survived.
The survivors are polarized around two god-like characters that magnetize individuals through their dreams. Mother Abigail Freemantle, a 108-year-old woman from Hemingford, Nebraska draws those with inherent goodness. Randall Flagg, from nowhere and everywhere, draws those with a slightly more dubious nature.
The story of The Stand is broken down into three large chunks. The strongest is the first third, focused on the survival tales of all key and secondary characters. Each has a special genetic make up that leaves them immune to Captain Trips. King builds his world character-by-character and circumstance-by-circumstance. There are no glimpses of Presidential edicts and worldwide coordinated response efforts. We’re given a vivid view into a decimated world through the individual actions of individual characters.
The middle third of the book builds on the lives of these individuals as they start to connect and socialize, primarily around Mother Abigail in Nebraska and then Boulder, but also in Flagg’s domain centered on Las Vegas. The final third culminates the growing tension between good and evil, and how individuals and new societies move forward after such an incredible disaster.
I read the extended version of the novel: it’s a beast that clocks in at over 1,100 pages. But it flows very well. King has a very special way of creating characters that makes each very relatable. While the ‘relate-ability’ factor is lower with the characters in The Stand than in It, King still crafts very unique and differentiated personalities, with very real and believable emotions and motivations.
Mother Abigail is a wonderfully strong character, acting as the collective conscience and vision in the Boulder Free Zone. But King has built something special in Randall Flagg. He represents anarchy and entropy. He doesn’t embody chaos; he is chaos. King describes him as
…a clot looking for a place to happen, a splinter of bone hunting a soft organ to puncture, a lonely lunatic cell looking for a mate — they would set up housekeeping and raise themselves a cozy little malignant tumor.
When we’re first introduced to Flagg as “The Walkin’ Dude,” meandering down a western highway, readying to gather his minions, King writes,
He was known, well known, along the highways in hiding that are traveled by the poor and the mad, by the professional revolutionaries and by those who have been taught to hate…
At times, it’s unclear where the dividing line is between Flagg and the virus itself, Captain Trips. “The beast is on its way,” says General Starkey, commander of the facility that had housed the virus:
He was weeping and grinning. “It’s on its way, and it’s a good deal rougher than (we) ever could have imagined. Things are falling apart.”
The war of good versus evil is led by Flagg and Mother Abigail, and acted out by their soldiers; the amalgam of individuals living in their respective towns. King sprinkles a modicum of magic and fantasy throughout the story, which build up a mythology around the two semi-gods. Naturally, religion sprouts from these roots. The intensity and acceptance of this religious outgrowth varies by individual. Some survivors willingly and easily give themselves over to this magic, while others have a hard time letting go of their agnosticism. As the behaviors of individuals start to change, a new culture develops, which informs how the new society will behave.
In Boulder, Mother Abigail’s clan seeks to build a different and better world than what had been destroyed, but it’s well founded in the world that they knew. Flagg, however, has no interest in bettering, outside of improving his own lot. He has no real goal, simply to ‘win’, to regenerate his own kind (whatever demon-creature he was); and create anarchy wherever he roams.
I’ve had an internal debate of how to rate The Stand since I finished the book two days ago: is this as good as It — the answer is “no.” It was a terrifically affecting and satisfying read, and I can’t get past how enjoyable a journey King created with his thorough blend of characters and story. But, if The Stand isn’t as good as It, can it warrant an equal rating? I’m concluding that it can, if for no other reason than the insights and analytical discussions the book has spawned. King knows how to write engaging and deep characters that thread seamlessly throughout a large-scale epic story. I’ve concluded that the 1,000+ page investment was well worth the time, and worthy of the highest rating.