Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'The Stand' by Stephen King

Stephen King (1947- )
The Stand (1979, 1990)

1141 pages

Through a series of individually minor human errors, an extremely deadly, flu-like virus escapes from a secret government lab where it had been developed. Within weeks it spreads throughout the country (and by implication the rest of the world) leaving well over 99% of the population dead. So begins Stephen King's apocalyptic vision of the near future. (This uncut version of the novel, published in 1990, is set in the second half of 1990.)

The few survivors struggle to understand what has happened, and to come to grips with the sudden emptiness of the world around them. Basic survival is not a problem - for the limited population left, the food, and more generally "goods", left behind are enough to last many years; technical and scientific skills represent a bigger concern (the health care debate takes on a completely different level when the only doctor is a veterinarian). The main question for the survivors is more whether, and how, to go on. Compounding their uncertainty and fear are dreams they begin having, vivid dreams of good and evil.

With these dreams the novel takes a mystical-religious turn, as the survivors begin to coalesce into two groups, based on their personalities and predilections: one 'good' group in Boulder, Colorado, around an old black woman who seems to have a special connection to God, and a second 'evil' group in Las Vegas, around an incarnation of the devil, referred to, among other names, as the Dark Man. For both of these groups it is clear that one side will eventually dominate and destroy the other, and the story reaches its climax in this battle between good and evil.

I was drawn to the book originally out of interest in reading King's vision of a post-apocalyptic future, and the mystical aspect of the story has a tendency to make events seem a bit arbitrary, because the extent, and more importantly the limits, of the powers of the old woman and the Dark Man are not always clear.   On the other hand, these powers accelerate the confrontation between the two groups, which keeps the pace of the action fast, pulling the reader quickly through the over 1100 pages of this "complete & uncut edition" of the story (which is some 400 pages longer than the original edition, which had been published in 1979, and set in 1985).

There are several unanticipated parallels to events of the last decade in the story. Once the virus has run its course, and people begin finding each other and joining forces, there is initially a strong tendency to overlook differences that would have separated these same people in the pre-flu world as the focus is now on confronting the new situation. This spirit of cooperation gradually weakens, and one of the minor themes of the story is discussion among the characters over whether it is possible to learn from the mistakes of the past, and build a better future. There are strong shades of the post 9-11 discussions in the US in this aspect of the story, and in the end King does not answer this question, or, more precisely, his characters, as they see the course of human nature in the post-flu world, are left unconvinced as the story ends of whether the new world they have inherited can be re-built to improve on what had come before.

Another parallel: reading this book in early 2010, on (hopefully) the heels of the H1N1, swine flu scare made it actually a scarier read than did the mystical, good versus evil aspect of the story. The parallels between how quickly the H1N1 virus spread --- shutting down schools and in Mexico even cities for a time --- and events in the novel made the story feel more like a potentially real future and less like improbable fiction.

Other reviews / information:
at Illiterarty.com

by Robert Kiely for the New York Times

Curious Connecitons:
Click here to play Nick Cave and Bad Seeds, Red Right Hand 

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

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