Apocalypse Review: The Stand

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The Stand (Complete & Uncut) (Novel, 1978 & 1990)

Written by Stephen King US Paperback - US Kindle UK Paperback -UK Kindle

(easy way to check if you're getting the full, expanded version: use the Look Inside feature to see if it has the introduction where King explains why he did the 1990 Complete & Uncut edition)

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Review (spoilers!)

A terrifying bioengineered virus escapes from a military facility and devastates the US, leaving only a few survivors plagued by dreams that drive them to engage in a conflict between good and evil.

The Stand originally came out way back in 1978, and was pretty damn long despite the many cuts King had to make to get it down to some kind of reasonable length. In 1990, King reissued the book, having become just a teensy bit popular in the meantime, and was able to get everything back in that he originally wanted, as well as revising and updating much of the rest.

It’s an epic length, and it’s meant to be an epic. The original idea calls for a battle between good and evil that resembles a Tolkien-scale fantasy conducted in modern-day America, a theme King would return to more than once. This makes it as much a fantasy novel as a horror novel, though the horror is very definitely there (but I’ll come to what I think the true horror of the book is later on).

The problem is that the book doesn’t start out with this epic battle. It doesn’t even really get to it for a pretty big chunk of the story, because first of all it has to get through a very well depicted and harrowing viral apocalypse that wipes America clean of most of humanity and leaves everything in place for the game of good vs. evil.

The only problem is that the apocalypse is the good bit and the battle against evil is… well, it’s a bit tedious at times. There’s really not much actual battling going on. King later reported that he ended up having to kill off a sizeable chunk of the ‘good’ characters just to keep up the interest in the story. And it doesn’t help that he always seems to be having so much more fun when dealing with the ‘evil’ characters. The first appearance of one of these in the early chapters of the book (with two unpleasant people on a killing spree) bursts off the page in comparison to the personal and family dramas that the ‘good’ characters are going through at that point.

And when you finally get to the battle… well, there basically isn’t one. The good guys walk into town after the Dark Lord has pretty much screwed up his own cause by trusting a maniac who derails all his evil Dark Lord plans by basically being a maniac. He’s about to take revenge on the good guys who finally showed up for the battle, and the aforementioned maniac accidentally sets off a nuke. Or possibly the Dark Lord’s own lightning does it. Or maybe the hand of god comes down and sets it off. It’s not entirely clear.

The biggest problem is that the intended story (battle of good vs evil) doesn’t actually seem like it’s the real, main story here. The viral apocalypse originally conceived of as a way of getting everything ready for the battle is far more compelling, and the fantastical/religious confrontations after that end up seeming like an attempt to trump the apocalypse with the only thing the author could think of that might be bigger – a religious battle of cosmic proportions.

But, as I’ve said before, this is a problem. Apocalypses are just too devastating to use as an introduction to another story. You can’t top the destruction of almost all human life by having the few survivors run around having religious confrontations. The story might have worked if the apocalypse had been presented in flashback – but the siren song of utter destruction was clearly too great for King to resist. We’re left with half of an excellent book, and then a long, slow trudge (even longer in the 1990 version) towards an end that can never match the promise of the beginning.

Depiction of the Apocalypse

Usually one apocalypse is enough. But here we have two: one viral, and one religious. They overlap and intertwine, but are fundamentally separate in the way they operate. Despite his forays into other genres, King is very much a horror writer and both these apocalypses are horrific – but for very different reasons.

Firstly: the viral apocalypse. Unlike Contagion, there’s no pretence that this is anything natural, nor is the response to the superflu quite what we would expect in the real world; nevertheless, it’s gripping stuff. There’s a little bit of handwavium called a ‘shifting antigen’ to explain why the bug is so deadly, and thankfully this is never explored further than that (though if you’re interested, viruses do shift their antigens on a regular basis when they meet another strain and swap these protein keys on their coat, and this is why influenza keeps coming back at us. It just doesn’t do the shift constantly while it’s infecting you, thus making it virtually impossible to defend against).

More interesting than the bug itself is the rather paranoid attitude to how it’s created and how it develops. A secret, off-the-books government installation develops a wide variety of diseases with this particular nasty twist; there’s an accident, one of the army guards realises what’s going on and does a runner with his wife and child, not realising that he’s already infected. The government then does everything it can to try and stop the outbreak – and prevent anyone finding out that it was their fault in the first place. Even as millions die, the military is deployed to kill journalists and suppress protests with live ammunition (at Kent State, of course). The pointlessness of the cover-up might seem a little bizarre at first, but we’re in a darker America than even the one we have now. In the original version, the story is set in 1980, and it’s easy to believe that the people who brought us Mutually Assured Destruction and were willing to push the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war only a few years later might decide to behave in such an insane manner, even as they find themselves with the first sniffles that presage death within a few days. It makes slightly less sense in 1990, when the updated version is set, but still seems plausible if you’re willing to be paranoid about the more secretive arms of the US Government. And indeed, the updated version shows us much more of this, expanding significantly on the government side of things. There’s a very clear feeling of impending armageddon that was a familiar dread to anyone who lived through the cold war; you could even interpret this as a novel about those terrible dangers we were subjected to for forty-five years (if it weren't for the second apocalypse).

King’s skills as a horror writer come to the fore as the apocalypse builds: that sick, lurching sense that things are just going to keep getting worse is prevalent as the superflu spreads, and he’s very much at home dwelling on the nastier aspects: a prisoner locked in his cell considering cannibalism as he regards the corpse of his cellmate; towns suddenly depleted of people; cars turned into coffins on every highway; and even the details of the disease itself, with the swelling and blackening of glands in the neck, show signs of King’s fascination with the unpleasant side of life.

But eventually, the tidal wave of death dies down, and the surviving characters head out on the road, driven by dreams into the arms of the second apocalypse – the religious one. And this is where the story falls down, for more reasons than just the loss of interest after the first apocalypse ends.

It rapidly becomes clear that the second apocalypse considers the first one to be just a curtain raiser, and in that regard, it’s basically the Rapture with a twist; instead of the good people going to heaven and leaving the sinners behind to choose sides between god and the devil, a seemingly random (but possibly hand-picked) selection of people are left alive to choose sides between a saintly old woman in Nebraska and the Dark Lord who gathers his forces in Las Vegas. There’s no concept of ‘the elect’, but otherwise it’s pretty clear that we’re in Christian fundamentalist territory as far as the workings of the universe go.

Some of the characters object to this (or at least the good ones do, anyway; the evil ones get nailed to crosses for far lesser infractions). As saintly and kind as their prophet is, it’s clear that what’s required of them is really quite vile. Not content with putting them through the horrible experience of watching all their loved ones die and leaving them to try and survive in a world filled with corpses, the good lord then requires that they march off to sacrifice themselves on cue so that the final battle can be won.

Except that this isn’t a final battle humanity has any real say in. It’s not their fight. It’s two supernatural beings playing chess with each other, and this is the true horror of the second apocalypse: this is the kind of universe that religious fundamentalists actually believe in, where humans are no more than pieces on a board to be positioned and sacrificed at whim. And what’s more, they’re expected to like it, or else they might be punished with greater suffering. It’s a pointless, hypocritical waste that’s only addressed in the book through the mouths of the characters who recognise this for the horror it is, and are then shouted down or bribed with miracles to keep them playing the game. Other than that, no one really deals with the true enemy: God and the Devil combined, who are willing to sacrifice billions of lives so they can play their game.

I don’t know if King intended this to be the true horror of the second apocalypse, or whether he was just trying to depict an epic quest using the mythology of the land in which it’s set, imitating the structure of Tolkien. It was certainly effective in horrifying me, much more than most horror stories I’ve read or seen. And perhaps if the horror of this supernatural interference had been further explored as the true reason for all the suffering in the story, and maybe even confronted somehow, then the book might not have ended in such a disappointing way.

(time to go and re-read Preacher as an antidote, I think)