The Stand, by Stephen King
Published in 1978 by DoubleDay, re-published in 1990
And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides — or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abagail — and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.
Finishing The Stand, I’ve now completed reading the Tri-fecta of oversize fiction by Stephen King (I read 11/22/63 last January and finished Under the Dome last year as well). That translates into a few thousand pages worth of hearing Stephen King’s voice whispering dark and creepy stories in my ear.
Of the three books, I think The Stand was my favourite. First published in 1978 and re-released in its full and un-cut version in 1990, it’s an oldie but a goodie. Part of the fun, from a 2016 perspective, is reading an apocalypse novel without a storyline of missed Facebook posts or the unavailability of texting. In a real doomsday scenario, we’d have so much more to worry about than stagnant Twitter feeds or our Facebook statuses. In my mind, the best apocalypse stories leave these things out – for instance, you never find Maggie upset that she can’t Instagram cute pictures of her and Glenn at Herschel’s farm on The Walking Dead, do you?
The Stand tells the tale of a botched experiment which infects a small number of soldiers with a military-grade deadly super-flu. Naturally, one of them escapes before the inevitable facility lockdown and later crashes head first into small-town Texas to start a nationwide pandemic.
A nice departure for King fans is that this story is woven through cities and towns all across the United States. While Maine eventually makes an appearance, it is by no means the lynch-pin of the story. In fact, we don’t really get to settle into one place until at least half-way through the book when we arrive in Boulder, Colorado. Having recently flown over that part of America, I got a bit of a kick out of imagining the scene; Boulder lies on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, nestled on the flat plains that start to slope into the foothills of the mountains and then upwards to the peaks themselves. West lies the desert and the scorching heat of Nevada and California. This gets important further into the story, so it’s important to have a grasp of the geography.
So this super-flu wipes out virtually the entire population of the United States. We don’t ever really know if it goes global, and lacking any super-connected internet networks our characters don’t really know either; after the televisions go out they are forced to get their news on these clunky old crackly boxes called RAY-DEE-OES and they are lucky if these work at all. We’re left with small and roving bands of disconnected survivors, inexplicably immune to the plague but often without very many other survival skills at all.
On the point of the extinction of civilization, my one complaint is that I often felt as if the characters were not desperate or terrified enough of this pending apocalypse. Yes, there were scenes of rioting and panic (and the roads and freeways seemed endlessly clogged with cars entombing their dead owners in mid-flight to nowhere), but our main characters for the most part seem to take it all in stride. A bit odd, but perhaps this is part of their immunity.
One of the best parts of the story is the slowly unfolding breakdown of society, and comprehending the aftermath. We see this happen on a large scale with the government and military, and on the small stages in town jails. Bonds between survivors are forged in the unlikeliest circumstances, speaking to the desperation of humanity to avoid being alone. And the reality of facing our fear of the dead – on a long walk through the pitch-black Lincoln Tunnel, filled to the brim with corpses – is one of most terrifying and gripping scenes in the entire novel.
When it comes to the end of the world, if military-grade super-flu is a convenient “how” then the “what” is an epic battle of good versus evil. The best part of The Stand is that King doesn’t come out and beat you around the head with the religious or allegorical comparisons; the characters don’t dumb it down and hash it out for us through their dialogue. It could be a struggle between God and Satan or Good and Evil but these forces are rarely openly mentioned even though they are present throughout at least the entire second half of the story. And if, like other King novels, the final confrontation seems a bit anti-climactic, perhaps it is just because the apocalyptic narrative is so compelling in the first place and because King weaves in enough other twists and mysteries to keep you engaged despite guessing how it’s probably all going to end.
So even though this super-flu doesn’t turn us all into zombies, The Stand is still a very engaging read and is worth adding to your apocalypse library. Just be warned – you might find yourself detouring far around the Lincoln Tunnel from now on.