So my first proper book I’ve read this year is The Stand. To be honest, I can’t believe I haven’t read it before. I tried about ten years ago, when I was probably early on in my undergrad, and… just couldn’t get through it. I think I got stuck on an early Larry chapter at some point (because let’s face it, he is The Worst) and just found I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to go on. This time, though, I was hooked.
A short summary for those who haven’t read: A superflu that kills 99% of the population escapes from a US testing facility and is borne across the country by a worker from the facility and his family. It spreads like wildfire and kills just about everyone. The survivors are pulled into an epic struggle of good vs. evil, where the ‘good’ rally around a 108 year old woman from Nebraska named Mother Abagail, and the ‘evil’ around the ‘Walkin Dude’, Randall Flagg. (Even before I read The Stand I knew about Randall Flagg. He’s often touted as one of literature’s greatest villains. He’s certainly pretty creepy.)
The main characters are:
-Fran, a pregnant woman who is pretty okay despite the fact that her main contribution to the narrative is that she’s Hot and also Pregnant.
– Stu, a Texan who is one of the first to be found immune and is captured and subjected to testing by the people in charge of creating the flu in the first place. He is Reliable and apparently .
– Larry, a rock and roll star whose big hit is the song of the apocalypse. He’s also The Worst for like 75% of the book because he’s mostly a self-centred dweeb.
– Nick, a deaf-and-mute young man who is just as awesome as Larry sucks. He’s Smart, Thoughtful, Kind, and Resourceful. He also has a BFF in Tom Cullen, who is mentally handicapped but also pretty damn awesome. (Laws!)
– Harold, whose unrequited love for Fran makes him Creepy and Twisted (and also probably the most interesting character).
– Nadine, who is also Creepy as well as a Virgin, which is a very important plot point in a way that gave me the heebie jeebies.
– Ralph, who is from Oklahoma and a Dear. I feel like most people wouldn’t give two cents about Ralph. They also wouldn’t put him on this list of main characters. I don’t care; I LOVED HIM.
-Glen who is a sociology professor from New Hampshire (Live Free or Die, baby) and who would never utter the motto of NH as I just did.
– Kojak, who is a True and Loyal Friend (and also like the one surviving dog).
– Trashcan Man, who is absolutely nuts and a pyromaniac with a dash of almost religious fervor. (To add any Old Fashioned Emphatic Capitals here would undermine how messed up TCM is.)
The scope of the book is enormous because it is an Epic Narrative, not only in terms of characters but also in geography (fun fact: they literally walk past my childhood home at one point whilst traveling up a certain highway, though the particular house is not mentioned). The first third of the novel, where everyone is dying, is fascinating for watching society disintegrate and Rather Unsettling to read whilst traveling with a cold. The rest of the novel is also fascinating in watching society attempt to regroup and rebuild. The logistics of such a world are very well thought out, including having all the horses die because it would be way easier to get around on horses than motorcycles so therefore they had to be eliminated. (The explanation is basically that dogs and horses are Man’s Best Friends, so they get killed off for the most part.)
I hesitated to call this ‘fantasy’, because it doesn’t have a lot of elements of more traditional fantasy. (Perhaps it’s more of a dystopia? Speculative fiction?) But it is the epic struggle of good vs. evil element which most crucially defines the story, and that is in many ways the ultimate underpinning of much fantasy (especially 20th century fantasy). This is a story that takes a stab at defining morality and humanity, and those characters who struggle on the borderline are, unsurprisingly, the most interesting. It’s not a perfect novel (the climax is a little deus ex machina but it also sort of works for just that reason? and a few characters don’t seem to fulfill their full potential/point)–I’d probably give it 4.5 stars, but I’ll put it to 4 for the purpose of this review.
The writing is very much Stephen King, in that sort of salt-of-the-earth style he has. And yet that’s part of the charm. He doesn’t try to make his ‘good’ characters always good (which is why we’re stuck with people like Larry) or his ‘bad’ characters always bad (at least you can sympathize with some of them). Good or bad, they seem perpetually horny (goddamn you, Larry) but I can also sort of sympathize with that, as sort of a survival instinct thing. Also fascinating is how important America itself is as a setting for the novel. In fact, I would rank The Stand along with Gaiman’s American Gods as a proper American fantasy/spec fic novel.
All in all, well worth the time. It’s a massive book (my kindle says over 1300 pages) but I devoured it once I got going. Despite all the confusion I’ve had over whether it counts as ‘fantasy’, I’m a fantasy lover at heart and this hit the spot for me as well as any Epic Struggle set in a pseudo-medieval world would.