Bye bye American dream: Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’


This is a grisly book – which means, if you enjoy Stephen King, you’re in for a treat.

I’d heard a lot about The Stand, and after a moment’s indecision decided to buy King’s own extended edition. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. A little research would have shown me just how extended this edition is (one of the few problems of e-books, that): over one thousand pages long and a structure that hops dizzyingly from one plot to the next. The editors of the original, published in 1978, had axed a lot of unnecessary character development which King thought necessary to reintroduce in this revised 1990 edition. He also added in a whopping prologue, which I would advise you not to read. Anyone who knows their Garth Merenghi will understand how prologues show King at his most pompous and unreadable.

The plot is simple. A deadly supervirus being bred by the US military escapes its high-security compound, and one of the guards with it. The virus is incredibly infectious, and by the time the man has driven with his wife and child to Texas, he’s almost dead of it. He passes the virus on to the people who find him, who go on to pass this on to their own families. And so on. The first third of the novel, then, describes the seeping of the virus across America, in a wonderfully sketched spiderweb of contagion. Once it has caught, the disease kills within a few days. You learn to beware every cough or sneeze in the book.

But a small number of people prove immune to ‘Captain Trips’, as the virus is named. As the population of America slowly, spectacularly, dies off, and government dissolves into first a military coup and then televised anarchy, we follow these immunes as they wrestle with the enormity of what has happened. Then come the dreams – of a kind elderly woman in the North and a ‘dark man’ in the West – and begin to pick their way across states. From there be spoilers, but in short the stage is set for an epic stand between good and evil, in an obvious allusion to Judgment Day.

The real beauty of the book is not in its plot, which is readable but heavy-handed. I suspect King realised this when battling to publish his extended edition. There are several points of real greatness. The battle of individuals (and reader) to adjust to a silent America of fully stocked supermarkets but no electricity, for one. The characters flesh this out beautifully, and their own acceptance and trials provide good, sympathetic reading.

There’s a spaciousness to the book which puts it among the best of the post-apocalyptic canon. Larry, one of the novel’s main characters, wakes up on his travels and marvels at the “picture-postcard New England town” lying in the valley below him, a view which was “subtly wrong:… the lack of smoke from the mill and the number of twinkling toy cars parked at weird angles on the main street.” In another section, you remember how “nobody is debating anything in the House and the Senate, except maybe for the termites and the cockroaches.” It’s a strange American dystopia, and an immersing one.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for a good editing down of a long book, but this feels like a rare novel which demands the extra time. I like that, and I liked my compulsion to follow the characters through their difficult adjustments to new life. King isn’t for everyone (and his deplorable attitude to female characters deserves an entirely separate entry) but if you despaired of Carrie, or The Shining, it’s worth a (long) read.

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